Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Day in Court

We've all seen the ads about automobiles. They show sleek and shiny vehicles that define ones power, wealth and/or sex appeal. A person's choice of which car or truck to purchase, we are told, defines who we are and what kind of image we wish to project.

Of course, the above may be true for those of a certain economic standing, but, for the rest of us, the choices are greatly limited -- We buy what we can afford and that's not much at all!

When my Nissan Pickup gave up the ghost last year, we had next to no money available to purchase a replacement vehicle. We didn't like any of our choices, but finally went with a 1995 Ford Escort Wagon. It has proven to be an unmitigated piece of crap, but it's OUR piece of crap.

While there are host of things wrong with this lemon, the one that landed me in the South Bend Municipal Court today has to do with the car's less than adequate seat belts. I had received a ticket 3 weeks earlier for not wearing my lap belt.

I requested a Mitigation Hearing. This morning I told Municipal Judge Elizabeth Penoyar that I readily admit that I was not wearing my lap belt and that it was a conscious decision. I had not worn my lap belt prior to receiving the ticket and I did not fasten it today when I drove to the hearing.

The reason I don't wear it is because it does not serve the purpose intended AND it does not meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (though it was allowed to be manufactured this way). According to the federal regulations, a seat belt must be adjustable and have some mechanism that causes the seat belt to lock the occupant in place in the case of an accident.

The seat belts in the 1995 Ford Escort do neither. The belts are not adjustable -- it's one size fits all. When I'm sitting in the driver's seat, the automatic shoulder harness can be pulled out far enough that I can wrap it around the steering wheel and the lap belt pulls out almost as far. In addition, there is no catch mechanism whatsoever. The belts continue to give until they reach their maximum length.

Consequently, my fear is that, in case of a serious accident, my belts will not keep me in my seat AND will most likely entangle my legs and arms which could cause me great difficulty in escaping a burning or sinking car. This is why I have made the conscious decision not to wear the lap belt. (The shoulder harness is even more ineffectual, but it engages automatically and, if disengaged while the motor is operating, causes an alarm to sound unabated.)

I've read online that there have been many complaints about the ineffectiveness of seat belts on Ford Escorts, yet the government has refused to issue a recall. So, car owners like myself are stuck in an almost impossible situation: Wear the belt and risk death or serious harm OR not wear the belt and risk $124 tickets.

One other solution is to get new seat belts installed, but that solution is cost prohibitive for poor people like us. While the parts themselves only cost around $50, the labor runs several hundred dollars -- several hundred dollars we simply don't have!

My argument was compelling. Initially, the judge wasn't sure what she could do, but she came up with a solution that I believe is fair. My case has been continued for one year's time. If I am not ticketed for a seat belt violation during the next 365 days, the case will be dismissed and no fine will be assessed.

So, I will continue not to wear my lap belt. If I am pulled over by an officer for whatever reason, I will immediately fasten the belt and, when I'm done speaking to the fine public servant, I will disengage the belt before driving off.

If my wife & I win the lottery, then we will buy a new car which will define our newly found power, wealth and/or sex appeal. ;-)


  1. Test your seatbelts by trying to pull them while vigorously braking.

    A weighted lever should swing to engage a ratchet that stops the adjustment of the seatbelt. If it doesn't then your belt mechanism needs to be repaired. The weighted lever arrangement is designed to allow for comfortable adjustment and still restrain occupants during periods of intense velocity change.

    Remember, the rules may be stupid, arbitrary, and irritating; but God help you if you break one!

  2. AM: This is my point. There is no catch mechanism whatsoever in this lemon. My wife & I were in in a head-on collision a few years back and the seat belts in that vehicle (a Japanese-made Nissan) were constructed correctly and saved me from injury.

    The problem with the seat belts in a 1995 Ford Escort is that they were designed to APPEAR as if they provide safety without actually providing any safety at all.


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