Buckle down, clean up in the name of seat belt safety


In the big international brouhaha over car interiors, I side with the Japanese.

Using what diplomats would call frank language, Japanese officials said recently that Americans have dirty car interiors.

The officials made this statement in an attempt to explain why the red release buttons on some car seat belts got jammed more frequently in America than they did in Japan.

The blame, according to a couple of big wheels in the Japanese auto industry and transportation ministry, should fall on sloppy Western attitudes toward car cleanliness.

I agree, as I am sure do countless dads around America. At last the seat belt mess has given us some ammunition in our battle to keep the family car spick-and-span. This week the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the recall of some 8 million cars and trucks built between 1986 and 1991 that use the Japanese-made Takata Corp. seat belts.

As the news of the recall broke, an official at the Japanese Ministry of Transportation said that a couple of Japanese carmakers had looked into the problem of why the release buttons on seat belts failed more often in the United States than they did in Japan.

The Japanese big wheels told the New York Times that when their investigators examined some of the broken seat belts used by American drivers, what they found was not a pretty sight.

They had found animal hair. They had found pieces of food. They had found drippings from soft drinks. This debris had gummed up the seat belts, the big wheels said, and prevented the buckles from locking securely.

The big wheels went on to say that this kind of debris isn't found in cars in Japan, where drivers keep their car interiors in pristine condition.

While I disagree with Japanese thinking on free trade and on how close baseball fences should be to home plate, I feel they are on target when it comes to the matter of seat belt sanitation.

Their belief that a car interior should be trash-free, is a theme dads have been harping on for years.

And for years our family members have ignored us. Now we have evidence to support our crusade for clean cars. It is not much evidence, a few off-hand remarks from some guys trying to deflect the blame for using plastic instead of nylon to make the release buttons.

Moreover, later news stories did report that U.S. authorities said the major culprit in the seat belt button failure situation was probably not the dirt but the sun.

Over time, exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun apparently caused the plastic release buttons in the seat belts to chip, jamming the locking mechanism.

The argument that dirt broke the seat belt buckle probably has more flaws than a Vega that rolled off the assembly line on a Monday morning. But I will use it.

I take a hard line against car litter because, like a lot of guys, I have the unpleasant job of cleaning it up. I have spent many Saturdays pulling browned banana peels, aged apple cores and crumpled french fries from under the car seats. I have found sunflower seeds in the stitching of the seats. Pieces of cereal are a common find.

I have also noted that two trends in American society have collided, with a smelly result. The first trend is the increased consumption of fruit among many Americans, including the passengers in my car. The second trend is the automobile manufacturers' inclination to put big pouches or "map pockets" on the backs of car seats.

The confluence of these trends in our station wagon has meant that unless I clean out the map pockets about once a week, the pockets take on the appearance of a compost pile.

Soon recall letters will be going out to owners of cars with the potentially defective buckles. The manufacturers who agreed to the voluntary recall are Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, Mitsubishi, GM, Mazda, Suzuki, Subaru and Isuzu. (For more information on the vehicles in the recall, call NHTSA's consumer hot line at [800] 424-9393.)

Our family station wagon is not among the ones being recalled. But even though we don't have the kind of seat belt that could be damaged by dirt, I don't plan to make my family aware of that,

In my crusade to rid the family chariot of banana peels, I will twist any fact.

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