During the last few months, CBS News, U.S. automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have been waging a public battle over a simple act: smacking the back of a seat belt buckle to make it open.
Washington correspondent Roberta Baskin reported on the September 10 "Street Stories" that push-button safety belts common in American-made cars might not be effective in multi-impact collisions or rollovers because of "inertial unlatching." The program included at least a dozen demonstrations, usually with videocassettes being used to strike the underside of the latches.
"We never suggested that it was common," Baskin says. "But I'm convinced it can happen, and I have no doubt it does. We're talking about potential design problems across millions of cars."
Baskin's 11-minute report struck a nerve in Detroit, just as talk of "inertial unlatching" had done when Ralph Nader testified about it before Congress in 1966. This time around, the industry-funded American Coalition for Traffic Safety bought ads in the New York Times and Washington Post charging CBS had misled the public and arguing that no scientific evidence exists for "real world" inertial unlatching. NHTSA later wrote CBS President Laurence Tisch stating that "any objective review" shows that CBS "did not provide fair, unbiased and objective coverage of the facts."
At a November 18 press conference, the day before "Street Stories" aired a follow-up report by Baskin, NHTSA said it had found no evidence of inertial unlatching. The agency admitted, however, that it had received reports that buckles sometimes, albeit rarely, opened in crash tests for no apparent reason. Administrator Marion Blakey conceded, "In a crash environment it is conceivable that [inertial unlatching] could occur. But judging by all the data that we have before us, the odds of it occurring are minuscule."
Some reporters attending say CBS responded with hype. Hours later, Dan Rather would introduce Baskin's "Evening News" report on the conference by saying, "Federal highway safety officials now admit that there is a potential problem with a type of automobile safety belt in millions of cars. So what are they going to do about it? Nothing."
If that's a fair summary of what Blakey said, CBS seems to …