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John Zarella: Automatic seatbelt safety

John Zarrella  

John Zarrella is CNN's Miami bureau chief.

Q: Why were automatic seatbelts discontinued in most cars?

ZARRELLA: Automakers, by federal law, were required to put in a passive restraint system. The passive restraint system put in in the late 1980s and in the early part of the 90s in many vehicles, up to about 30 million, was this passive restraint system where the shoulder harness automatically comes into place when you sit down and turn on the ignition. But then you need to buckle the lap belt. After airbags came into existence, it was at that time that the auto manufacturers who had opted for these automatic shoulder belts began to stop installing those in the vehicles.


Q: What are the dangers of not wearing the lap belt of an automatic seatbelt?

ZARRELLA: According to all of the medical and safety experts that we have talked to, not buckling that lap belt portion of the restraint is basically as good as not wearing the belt at all. What happens in many instances is that in these types of crashes these particular vehicles in question do not have an air bag, so if you don't have that lap belt portion, you can actually slide down on impact underneath the steering wheel. You can be decapitated by the shoulder belt as it comes up across your neck. There is a risk of blowing out your heart, lacerating the liver, and they say that because of a woman's anatomy, women who don't wear that lap belt are even at greater risk than men who don't wear it.

Q: How common are injuries sustained from improper use of automatic seatbelts?

ZARRELLA: In many cases, although there is no specific number from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that details this particular belt, it is believed that there are significant numbers related to this system when the lap belt is not worn. But there is no actual number.

And there are safety experts who say that they have represented numerous plaintiffs in cases against automakers involving this particular restraint.

Q: Can car manufacturers make the argument that it is up to the driver to use the seatbelt properly?

ZARRELLA: Auto manufacturers have in fact used that argument in court. In one case that we know of that was part of the argument. But, the plaintiffs in the case insisted that there was not enough information provided to the car owner as to the importance of wearing the lap belt as well as the automatic shoulder harness. And in that case, the plaintiff won a sizeable judgment from the court.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share?

ZARRELLA: Every safety expert will tell you simply this: seatbelts work. Every study shows that seatbelts save lives. But it's not just the seat belt, it's the entire restraint system, including the air bag. And these safety experts say it does absolutely no good if you don't use your safety restraint system properly. At that point, you have defeated the purpose.

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