Ford Motor Co. will begin installing rear shoulder-harness belts in 1989-model Escorts, beginning in September. A Business section article Jan. 31 incorrectly stated that they were being installed on 1988 Escorts. (Published 3/4/88)

Domestic auto makers, which spent four years and $46.5 million pushing seat belts as a reasonable alternative to air bags, are facing multimillion-dollar lawsuits stemming from increased seat-belt use.

Most of the litigation stems from injuries allegedly caused by lap belts -- single rear-seat straps designed to be worn across the bony part of the pelvis. In certain severe frontal collisions, the belts can injure or kill the passengers they are supposed to protect, according to auto safety research conducted during the past 20 years, including several studies by the U.S. government.

"It's amazing," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Washington. "For years, the manufacturers were worried about air-bag litigation. But I don't think they ever worried about seat belts, because few people were using them. But now, the companies are drowning in seat-belt litigation," O'Neill said.

The exact number of lawsuits filed over seat belts is hard to determine. But the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington consumer group that monitors auto safety complaints, estimates that 300 such legal actions are under way in courts across the country.

Virtually all of these suits have been brought since 1984, when the car companies launched their ambitious campaign to get states with two-thirds of the nation's population to pass mandatory seat-belt laws by 1989.

The auto makers' alternative, under a 1984 federal auto-safety rule, was to install air bags or other automatic crash-protection devices in all new cars sold in the United States by the end of the decade.

The car companies had been fighting air bags since 1968, when the Department of Transportation issued the first of a series of rules calling for the installation of automatic crash-protection devices in new cars sold in this country.

Auto officials viewed air bags as costly items that were not necessarily any more effective in crashes than seat belts, which, in various forms, had been offered as standard equipment in domestic cars since 1966.

The 1984 DOT rule, promulgated by former Transportation secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, gave the industry the green light it needed to take its case for seat belts to the public, said Charles Spilman, president of Traffic Safety Now Inc. (TSN) in Detroit, the industry's lobbying arm on the seat-belt issue.

TSN does not oppose air bags, which are designed to inflate within milliseconds of a car crash, providing a potentially life-saving cushion between front-seat occupants and the car's steering wheel, dashboard and windshield. TSN believes the bags should be used as a supplement to standard belts, Spilman said.

That is the message that TSN has been taking to legislatures. The lobbying effort has been enormously successful. Thirty-one states -- including Virginia and Maryland -- and the District now have mandatory seat-belt laws, Spilman said.

Before the TSN lobbying began, with help from state and federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 11 percent of the drivers in those states wore seat belts. Driver use of seat belts is up to 48 percent in those states today, according to a 1987 report published by the Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Twelve percent of all occupants in cars in the United States used seat belts in 1984. About 42 percent of those occupants use belts today, according to NHTSA figures.

NHTSA officials said that those increases in belt use have improved driver and passenger safety. Between Jan. 1, 1984, and June 30, 1987, about 5,734 lives were saved in traffic accidents because of increased seat-belt use, according to NHTSA figures.

But the problem is lap belts, said Clarence M. Ditlow III, director of the Center for Auto Safety. If few drivers strapped themselves into seats with the standard, front-seat shoulder-harness belts before 1984, even fewer passengers used the lap-only belts employed as standard rear-seat restraints, Ditlow said.

"We estimate that less than 5 percent of rear-seat passengers used the lap belts," said Ditlow. "But now, the number of people using rear-seat lap belts has all of a sudden gone up 10-fold. And the manufacturers' exposure to litigation has gone up in proportion to the rise in the use of those belts," Ditlow said.

Ford Motor Co., whose four-year-old "Buckle Up" campaign is one of the nation's most popular seat-belt promotions, was hit with a $3 million judgment in a seat-belt liability trial in federal court in Baltimore last December. The jury trial involved 13-year-old Jimmy Garrett of La Plata, Md., whose back was broken in an Aug. 29, 1985, traffic accident.

According to evidence in the case, Garrett was a rear-seat passenger in a 1985 Ford Escort -- a subcompact car weighing 2,222 pounds -- that inadvertently crossed the centerline of a highway and smashed into an oncoming 39,000-pound, 18-wheel truck.

Ford contended that the closing speed -- the combined impact speed of both vehicles in a crash -- was 50 miles an hour, while Garrett's lawyers said the closing speed was lower. The result, in any event, was devastating.

The Escort was demolished -- its front end pushed up, its roof crushed and its rear end turned into twisted metal. Garrett was permanently injured. The other rear-seat passenger, Chris Gaboury, 13, who was also wearing a lap belt, was killed.

The belted driver of the Escort, Christine Kisamore, 17, broke a leg in the accident. The unbelted front passenger, 16-year-old Karen Drumheller, broke two legs.

Garrett's lawyers argued that their client received a "classic seat belt {lap belt} injury... . His upper body flexed over the belt, and it broke his back."

The jury agreed and said Ford was at fault.

Ford officials said privately that they were shocked by the verdict, and they have asked U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard in Baltimore to set aside the jury's award. The company will appeal the verdict if the judge sides with the jury, Ford officials said.

Ford's stance is that the Garrett crash "was extraordinarily violent," the company said in a formal statement on the trial. Also, the company said, the Escort's lap belts were in compliance with all existing federal standards.

Meanwhile, Ford voluntarily is installing rear shoulder-harness belts in its 1988 Escorts and in five other car lines. The company expects to have rear shoulder harnesses as standard equipment in all of its new cars by 1990.

Indeed, all domestic auto makers and most major foreign car companies will offer standard rear-seat shoulder harnesses in their new U.S.-market cars by 1990.

The auto makers will offer automatic crash protection devices, air bags and automatically closing seat belts as standard equipment, too. The reason is that although they managed to get the state legislatures to pass seat-belt laws, too many of those statutes are too weak to offset the automatic restraint requirement in the 1984 DOT rule.

The political results of those developments may be the greatest irony of all. Throughout her tenure as Transportation secretary, Dole was reviled by many auto-safety advocates as a tool of the car companies. Indeed, her 1984 automatic restraints rule was seen as yet another federal attempt to let the car companies off the hook on air bags.

But through a weird alchemy -- a mixture of design, default, liability suits and happenstance -- consumer advocates appear closer to getting the two things they wanted most: automatic restraints and rear shoulder harnesses.