Michelle Boyle's parents knew something wasn't right when the police report and newspaper accounts of her death in a car crash said she wasn't wearing her safety belt.
Now the couple are caught up in a national conflict over what some safety advocates say are seat belts that can release on impact. Jim and Virginia Boyle are scheduled to appear on national television tonight to recount their 17-year-old daughter's Aug. 19 death on a rural road in West Friendship.
"It was pointless, it was senseless. This didn't have to happen," Mrs. Boyle said. "No other family should have to go through this."
The family's disbelief began when county police determined that Michelle was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.
"The one thing we drilled into all our children was the safety feature of wearing their seat belt," Mrs. Boyle said.
Michelle's father had been a part-time driving instructor for three years, and the couple said they even peeked out of their front window periodically to make sure the seat belt rule was being followed.
On Sept. 10, they saw an episode of the CBS news show "Street Stories," which demonstrated an alleged design defect that causes seat belt buckles to open.
The Boyles' tragedy will be included in a follow-up on the seat belt story on tonight's "Street Stories," which will be broadcast at 9 p.m. today on Channel 9 (WUSA) and Channel 11 (WBAL).
After seeing the first show, Mr. Boyle sent for a videotape of the show and information from the Institute for Injury Reduction, which has lobbied for the elimination of the center-release seat belts.
The institute maintains that in some crashes, especially those involving multiple impacts, a sharp jolt from a passenger's hip bone triggers the release mechanism in the seat belt.
"Seeing all the [hand-written] complaints, I wanted to throw up," Mr. Boyle said of information provided by the institute. The reports included cases in which witnesses had seen passengers buckle up before accidents in which they were thrown from their seats.
Police said Michelle lost control of her car on Old Frederick Road and crashed into an embankment. She was thrown from the car, which overturned on top of her.
County police spokesman Sgt. Gary Gardner said an investigation at the scene and of the damaged 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais indicated the seat belt was not in use at the time of the accident.
The investigating officer noted that from the way the car was damaged, the belt would not have retracted after the accident.
But Mr. Boyle said investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told him that wear to parts of the seat belt and mud splattered only on the driver's side belt indicated that his daughter had been wearing the safety belt.
Responding to a petition from the institute at a Washington news conference yesterday, the safety administration reiterated its confidence in the center-release safety belt.
"An exhaustive investigation found absolutely no basis for an allegation that tens of millions of seat belt buckles were defective," asserted a statement issued by the agency.
"There is no need for recall or new regulation. Safety belts provide outstanding crash protection, and the public should ignore irresponsible reports to the contrary," NHTSA Administrator Marion C. Blakely stated in his explanation of the petition's denial.
The institute responded with its own statement: "NHTSA today attempted to label as liars the many motorists and loved ones who know belt buckles release in crashes, and is turning a scornful eye upon their injuries, their pain, their grief and their knowledge."
Cindy Raffles, program director for the institute, and Mr. and Mrs. Boyle say they will continue to fight to have the buckles scrapped.
"We know that we sure can't resurrect anyone, but we would like to save someone else from this heartache," Mr. Boyle said.