New Call For Chrysler To Recall Seat Belts

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2003; John Crawley writing for Reuters reported that a leading consumer group stepped up pressure on Thursday for a voluntary recall of seat belts on up to 16 million Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles amid fresh assertions they can accidentally unlatch during crashes.

The demand from consumer watchdog Public Citizen, which was a driving force behind the recall of millions of defective Firestone tires in 2000 and 2001, came as another lawsuit was filed in Texas over claims the third generation or "Gen3" model belt buckle in Chrysler vehicles is defective.

Consumer groups and lawyers claim that belt failures are linked to 14 deaths and 19 serious injuries. They say the latch button can be accidentally activated because it sits a half-inch higher than the rest of the buckle assembly.

The latest legal case against Chrysler's parent, DaimlerChrysler AG , alleges that seat belts popped open during a rollover crash in Texas last December that killed two women and injured three children riding in a minivan.

"Tragically, this tends to happen when vehicles are involved in sudden stops, turns, collisions or rollovers -- exactly when drivers need their seat belts the most," said Public Citizen's Tom Smith.

"GEN3" SEAT BELTS

Public Citizen joined another prominent consumer group, the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, in calling for a recall of "Gen3" belts installed across Chrysler's product line since 1994. Vehicles include the Dakota pickup, the Durango sport utility vehicle and minivans.

The Center for Auto Safety urged Chrysler to recall the "Gen3" and replace them with its next generation buckle.

More than 140 consumer complaints about unlatchings have been gathered by consumer groups and lawyers in cases against the "Gen3" belt.

But Chrysler could not immediately confirm that it had received any consumer complaints and said it does not plan to issue a recall.

"It's been proven to be a very safe seat belt. In the few (legal) claims we have seen, all the evidence has shown that people were not wearing the seat belts at the time of the accidents," Chrysler spokeswoman Ann Smith said.

There have been less than a dozen lawsuits against Chrysler since 1998 alleging seat belt failure. It is appealing one Texas jury verdict in 2000 and has settled two other cases, according to a lawyer involved in several of those suits. Chrysler said two other class action suits had been dismissed.

The government agency responsible for auto safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is not investigating Gen3 belts and said no formal petitions for action had been filed.

The government investigated the "Gen3's" predecessor in the late 1990s before a recall was initiated against that product.

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