Statistics tell us that in the modern crash environment, a very large percentage of occupants are belted. Various studies put the number at approximately 90%. Injuries to belted occupants arise mostly from three types of defects.
Seat belt buckles have been proven to inertially unlatch. Automobile manufacturers have been aware since May of 1966 of the potential for the center button seat belt to come open or release during impact. Nevertheless, the automobile manufacturers have claimed that such a release does not happen in real world accidents. But inertia acceleration forces on the buckle housing and spring cause a release to occur as the pawl is depressed, releasing the latch.
A study by NHTSA shows that out of 225 seat belt buckles tested, 50 would unlatch when the vehicle was subjected to an impact on the back of a buckle. NHTSA, however, was not concerned with the issue because a large percentage of drivers and passengers were not wearing seat belts at that time and concluded that, based on the laboratory test, there was not sufficient evidence of inertia unlatching in the real world to warrant action. However, now states have enacted seat belt laws requiring drivers and passengers to buckle up and the vast majority of occupants do so.
GM simulated a side-impact crash, generally the most dangerous accident. The camera captures the seat belt releasing under pressure.
The phenomena of inertial unlatching and side-release in the RCF-67 buckles has been the subject of intense litigation. The buckle’s “RCF” designation stands for the initials of Robert C. Fisher, the buckle’s original designer at General Motors Company, while “67” refers to the calendar year 1967 when the buckle was originally developed. The RCF-67 buckle is a side-release buckle design which utilizes a spring-loaded pawl (connected directly to a side-mounted push button) which slips into an aperture in a flap latch plate against which the tongue (to which the shoulder restraint and lap belts typically attach) is slid into the buckle.
As the tongue is inserted into the buckle, sliding perpendicularly to and in the same plane as the latch plate, the spring-loaded pawl is pushed aside until the pawl “clicks” into the tongue aperture. This theoretically is intended to lock the pawl into the tongue aperture inside the buckle and retain it there under pressure from the spring until the user again depresses the button, pushing the pawl out of the tongue aperture and allowing the tongue to be withdrawn from the buckle.
The RCF-67 buckle has two principal defects. First, if the tongue is not inserted completely into the buckle to permit the spring-loaded pawl fully to clip into the aperture, the buckle’s locking mechanism does not come into operation, allowing the tongue to be pulled out of the buckle during a moderate deceleration, significant occupant movement, and/or the force of the spring-loaded retractor of the belt restraint. This is a “false-latch,” also called a “partial engagement” scenario. The second problem with the RCF-67 buckle design is that a sudden and significant force delivered perpendicular to and opposite the plane of the side release button can essentially cause the button and linked pawl to become “depressed” relative to the plane of the latch plate, paramount to the user pushing the button and causing the buckle to unlatch inadvertently.
The design of the RCF-67 buckle permitting false and inertia unlatching is fundamentally the same as that of the Tokai Rika B-020, ASEC 476215, and Gateway 900 seat belt buckles. While most of the automakers transitioned into the so-called “European style” end-release buckles, Ford Motor Company, a leading domestic maker, did not begin phasing out the RCF-67 buckles in a substantial percentage of its production vehicles until the mid-1990s, largely for cost-reduction purposes. At present, there are thousands of vehicles at large equipped with the RCF-67 buckles operating daily through the nation at constant risk of sudden false and inertia unlatching of those buckles, with their inherently catastrophic injury potential fully known by manufacturers.
“Safer belt designs predated the RCF-67 and were used by other manufacturers at the same cost,” says Lee Brown, “but two of the world’s largest manufacturers, Ford and GM, heavily promoted Fisher’s buckle. Millions of vehicles were never recalled because of the sheer cost of recalling versus defending a few lawsuits by consumers who realized it was the belt that caused the injury and not the crash.” Many Americans may not realize that there are limitations the government faces when confronting the automobile industry about a recall. Federal guidelines state that if the cost of a recall is financially burdensome, then the death and injury that can happen to a percentage of people, although wrong, does not justify a recall.