Chrysler Contesting Seat Belt Safety Decision
Feb. 23, 1996
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Chrysler Corp. said today it will fight a federal agency finding against some of its cars because it believes the safety test they were said to have failed was arbitrary.
At a hearing focusing on technical arguments, Chrysler lawyer Lewis Goldfarb said the highway safety agency did not specify in advance the standard that Chrysler failed, an omission that set an unacceptable precedent for the industry in meeting future safety tests.
``Tell us what the requirement is, and we'll meet it,'' said Goldfarb. ``We are concerned with future tests of compliance.''
The government's highway safety agency said in January that some 1995 Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars failed a safety test of seat belt anchor strength in back seats.
More than 91,000 of the vehicles are on the road.
Michael Brownlee, an associate administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency's clear policy has been since 1991 that it can test for seat belt anchoring adequacy by pulling on the seat belt from a position close to the seat or several inches further away.
Almost all vehicle safety recalls are done voluntarily by an auto company, either independently or at the strong nudging of NHTSA.
Chrysler's decision to fight NHSTSA's test sets up a rare confrontation between NHTSA and an auto company which leaves NHTSA with two options: Back down or issue a recall of the cars to force Chrysler into repairing the belt anchors.
A recall decision would be contested by Chrysler, said Chrysler spokesman Jason Vines, which could then bring the case to court.
NHTSA has decided to argue a recall case in court only eight times in the agency's history and has won all but one of those cases.
Agency officials have said all along that the agency would seek public comment before deciding whether to recall the vehicles to fix the belt anchors.
``It is a serious action by the agency but it is also not the final word of the agency,'' Michael Brownlee, the agency's associate administrator for safety, said on Jan. 23 when the decision was announced.
Such an initial decision has only been issued twice in the agency's history. The decision is so rare it was viewed by auto safety experts as a way to publicly pressure the automaker. Chrysler had earlier told NHTSA it would not voluntarily recall the vehicles.
During a routine test in July, NHTSA found a defect in the vehicles' rear seat-belt anchoring system _ a weld nut that pulled out of the floor of a 1995 Cirrus. The same system is used in the Stratus.
The government standard requires seat belts to sustain a 3,000-pound load for 10 seconds. NHTSA officials said the agency's test pulled on the belt at a distance of 5 inches from the seat back, which agency officials believe represents how much belt a thin passenger might use.
Chrysler's test pulled at a distance of about three inches from the seat back, which fits no one, agency officials said.
Al Slechter, Chrysler's federal technical affairs director, said last month the company takes issue with the way NHTSA conducted the tests.
``NHTSA is unwilling to relent and so are we. We feel we are right,'' he said.
NHTSA said Cirrus and Stratus cars manufactured after May 15, 1995, meet the safety standard because Chrysler replaced the weld-nut assembly with a stronger design.