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Belts recalled in 8.4 million vehicles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The government announced a safety recall yesterday of the seat belts in 8.4 million vehicles, and officials urged owners of the affected cars to act quickly on the warning.

Instead of waiting months for their recall notices to arrive in the mail, vehicle owners should immediately check their front seat-belt buckles for any cracking or degradation of the red release buttons, the government's chief auto safety regulator advised.

If any problems are found, or if the buckle does not hold when a consumer tests it several times, the vehicle should be taken immediately to a local dealer for free replacement or repairs, said Ricardo Martinez, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"If it's broken now or just doesn't seem to work right, don't wait," Mr. Martinez warned. "Call your dealer right away."

Only consumers who find no immediate problems with the buckles should wait for the recall notices, Mr. Martinez said.

The notice will include information about the free repair of the buckles, which officials say can degrade in the sun and break -- perhaps negating the life-saving quality of the most important safety system in a vehicle.

News of the recall, thought to be the second-largest automotive recall campaign in U.S. history, has been known for days. All of the buckles were made in Japan by the Takata Corp., which supplies safety restraints for up to a third of the vehicles in use worldwide.

The buckles were used from 1986 to 1991 in such popular models as the Honda Accord and Nissan Sentra, as well as some import vehicles sold by Detroit's Big Three automakers. Nine vehicle companies were involved in yesterday's announcement, with two others that could be added.

Nearly all of the 8.4 million vehicles are thought to be still in use.

Honda has the most vehicles involved, with 3.7 million Accords, Civics, Preludes and the luxury Acuras. The next biggest is Nissan, with more than 2 million Sentras, Infinitis and other models.

Toyota Motor Corp. is not involved in the recall.

Officials for Takata and NHTSA suspect a faulty plastic used in the red release button on the buckles can degrade in sunlight or possibly under extreme cold or heat.

Such stresses "can lead to a weakening of the plastic, which could then lead to a wearing down or chipping away of tiny pieces, which then can fall into the buckle," said Takata spokesman John Bailey.

Takata is working with auto companies worldwide to make sure the buckles are fixed, said Mr. Bailey and C. Reid Rundell, president of the firm's U.S. arm.

The vehicles affected were made in Japan or the United States by Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Suzuki, Isuzu and Subaru. Also involved are some General Motors and Chrysler vehicles built overseas or by joint venture plants in North America.

Ford Motor Co. said it is still investigating whether about 265,000 of its imported Festivas had the questionable buckles. And Daihatsu, which no longer operates in the United States, is negotiating about how to handle repairs to about 7,500 vehicles with suspect buckles.

Only Takata buckles are involved. Consumers should check the list of affected vehicles, then look for numbers beginning with TK-52 or TK-A7 on the backside of the front seat-belt buckles.

Federal regulators are still investigating whether automotive manufacturers or Takata promptly notified the government about possible problems with the belts.

Federal law requires automakers and suppliers to disclose evidence about potential safety defects. If such notice was not promptly made, companies could face a fine.

Officials said they have no direct evidence that Takata or auto companies tried to suppress questions about the buckles. However, it is known that Takata in 1991 stopped using the plastic involved in the buckle investigation.

In addition, some auto companies also may have issued nonsafety service bulletins about the buckles, and other firms may have replaced thousands of the buckles under warranties.

The government has received more than 500 complaints about possible failures with the buckles, with hundreds more received by manufacturers. In an era when a potential safety defect involves several or even dozens of deaths, the buckles are so far thought to have caused 90 injuries.

The government pressure to inspire the voluntary recall differs from two other recent federal safety probes. NHTSA was criticized for allowing Chrysler Corp. to conduct a nonsafety service campaign to replace rear door latches in its popular minivans, and for dropping a probe of fuel tanks in older General Motors Corp. pickups.

Takata said yesterday that it suspects the buckle degradation could be caused by faulty plastic from one of its suppliers, Japan Synthetic Rubber.

For more information on the seat belt recall, consumers can call auto manufacturers or the federal government's toll-free auto safety hot line: (800) 424-9393.

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