The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration Makes a Final Ruling
Odyssey with Honda
In January 2003, I received a large brown envelope in
the mail. Inside was the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration's final response to my seat belt petition asking for
seat belt extenders and optional longer belts for all
here to see the docket entries on the NHTSA website.
Why I started this
Almost five years before NHTSA's response, Mara
Nesbitt-Aldrich was on her honeymoon, riding in a borrowed car.
There was a crash. Blood and glass were everywhere. Mara broke the
windshield with her forehead. Her new husband walked away with
hardly a scratch. Mara was riding unbelted because her seat belt was
too short. She has permanent brain damage.
Four months after Mara's crash,
I am standing in a Honda dealership, on the phone with Honda's
National Customer Service department as they tell me you can get
a seat belt extender anywhere (well, except from Honda), even at Wal-Mart.
The truth is that there are no aftermarket seat belt extenders,
not even at Wal-Mart.
What I did initially
A letter to American Honda's president
took a month to bounce from Honda's Product Regulatory Department to
one Honda attorney, and then a second Honda attorney, to their
Consumer Affairs Manager, to a Team Environment Leader for Honda's
Consumer Affairs Division, and finally to his supervisor, who ended
our last conversation with words I will never forget. "There is
nothing you can do to get Honda to change their policy.
Nothing." I hung up the phone and
weighed my options. I had at least two: I could sue Honda, or I
could push for a Honda boycott.
decided not to sue Honda primarily because I hadn't yet been
damaged, but also because I couldn't match their deep financial
pockets and resources. A boycott would do nothing to help those who
already owned Hondas. Besides, Honda didn't want me to buy an
Odyssey. They told me so in a certified letter where they offered to
help me buy a Toyota instead.
I needed a plan. I needed something
that wouldn't be expensive, and that I could do in my spare time
at night and on the weekend, preferably using tools I already had.
I needed an edge, something that would put me on even ground with Honda.
So I proceeded to pick up the biggest hammer I could
find--I used the Internet. My friends Frannie and Melissa took pictures with me
and a couple of Hondas, and within a few hours after getting
the photos developed, I had created my first version of this
website. Within a few weeks our picture was on the front page of our local
newspaper, along with very positive coverage of my story. I began
writing letters, hundreds of them, to the mayor, the governor,
Congressmen and women, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore. I wrote the
whole Honda Board of Directors, both here and in Japan, I wrote
every safety organization I could find. I even wrote Hillary Clinton
and Tipper Gore. I spent every spare minute on the Internet,
searching for an answer.
How did Honda respond? Read more about my
correspondence with Honda
In their one letter to me, Honda told me that
"As required by federal standards, Honda's seat belts are designed
to fit 95% of all U.S. adults in any seating position." That wasn't
exactly true. I consulted the Code of Federal
Regulation and found out that what the regulation actually said
is that automakers are only required to manufacture seat belts that
fit people up to the 95th percentile U.S. adult male, who they
defined as weighing 215 lbs. This regulation is based on
height/weight data from 1962, and was written at a time when we did
not fully know the value of seat belts.
I had found the
problem and the reason for Honda's refusal to manufacture seat belt extenders. They
were following the letter of the law governing the manufacture
of seat belt assemblies.
U.S. Senator John Breaux and the
National Highway Traffic Safety
One of the
elected officials I wrote was United States Senator John
Breaux. He told me that any citizen could petition the NHTSA, asking that a regulation be
changed or amended. In April of 2000, I filed a petition
with NHTSA, asking that the existing federal
regulation governing the manufacture of seat belts, which only
required automakers to manufacture seat belts that fit people up to
215 lbs., be changed. I asked that the new regulation require
automakers to make seat belts available for sale, and also make
longer seat belts an option at the time of purchase. NHTSA created a
docket for public comment on my petition, DMS-NHTSA-2000-7580.
As of 12/9/2013 there are over
1100 entries in NHTSA's public docket, and hundreds of
additional letters have been sent to Honda and elected
When I first started this campaign in January,
1999, you could type the phrase "seat belt extenders" in a search engine on
the internet and get no meaningful results. Today you get more than 32,000
links to newspaper and magazine articles and to websites, including
mine, which has had hundreds of thousands of visitors. Seat belt extenders
have also found their place in popular culture. There has been a
great deal of positive media coverage including USA Today, the front page of the New York
Times, and a three-page article in People
Magazine. More recently it's been discussed in Time Magazine, on
the Today Show, and in the Detroit News. There has also been
positive coverage in Automotive Digest,
the Midwest City Sun, Australian Women's Forum Magazine, KKNG Radio,
3 On Your Side in Phoenix, AZ, the New Zealand Herald, Car Talk,
Honda Beat, The Sun, Automotive Resources International, Berliner
Morgenpost in Germany, KOMO 4 News, KCPQ in Seattle, Radiance
Magazine, Healthy Weight Journal, oooO Baby BABY, Dimensions
Magazine, BBW Magazine, and Sondra Solovay's book Tipping the Scales
of Justice. Reporters from Germany, France, Australia, and
Czechoslovakia have interviewed me. Mara Nesbitt Aldrich has been
invited twice to speak about this issue at the International Three
Flags Safety Belt Campaign. They were so moved by our dilemma that
85 police officers, sheriff deputies and state troopers signed a
petition to the NHTSA, asking that automakers be required to provide
a means for larger passengers to fasten their seat belts. Jade
Starrett has been interviewed on television in Seattle, Lora Holeman
has been interviewed several times in Oklahoma, and Lynda Finn has
been interviewed in New Zealand. Dennis Miller rants about seat belt
extenders in his stand up comedy routine. And Starr Jones, while
playing an attorney in an episode of Strong Medicine on Lifetime TV,
was seen dictating to her assistant about "suing the car maker, the
dealership, and even the salesman who sold her client a car with
seat belts that were too short." She quotes information from my
website almost word for word.
NHTSA Grants My
In February 2001, the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration granted my
petition. This means that NHTSA agreed the issues I raised in my petition warrant further
Honda Canada Has Extenders
Remember that phone call I made to
American Honda customer service, the phone call that kicked off this
whole campaign? The one where they told me they didn't have seat
belt extenders? Recently I made another call. The voice at the other
end of the phone said, "Honda Canada Customer Service." "Hi," I
said. "I'm having a problem with the seat belts in my 1999 Honda
Odyssey. They're too short. Do you have extenders?" Yes, she said,
we do have seat belt extenders for the 1999 Odyssey. (Unfortunately
these Canadian extenders aren't available for Hondas in America or
any Honda Odyssey with seat belt
pretensioners. Get additional information here.)
NHTSA Makes a
In 2000 I filed a petition with
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking that the
federal regulation governing the manufacture of seat belts be
changed so that people of all sizes could fasten their seat belts.
NHTSA granted my petition in 2001 and began a study of the issues I
raised in my petition. In NHTSA's final ruling, dated January 13,
2003 and titled NHTSA 02-13954, it took eleven pages to summarize
their research. The results contain both good and bad.
petition, I stated that if a person could physically fit in a
vehicle, the person should be able to fasten his or her seatbelt. A
simple idea, right? NHTSA's response is that they cannot establish
minimum performance requirements for seat belts based on such an
imprecise guideline. They said that to develop objective and
reasonable guidelines, NHTSA would have to know or estimate the
dimensions of the largest vehicle user. NHTSA believes that the most
critical measurement is seated hip circumference. The estimated
seated hip circumference of the 99th percentile adult person (male
or female) is 59 inches. They say that close to 2 million people in
the United States are larger than the 99th percentile.
surveyed General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Honda and found
that these automakers each provide an extra 18-20 inches of belt
length for the driver and right front passenger in 2003
vehicles. NHTSA calculated that 87.5% of vehicle
make/models available today offer consumers either seat belt
extenders or longer belts as an option. "Given that many vehicles
have belts long enough to fit almost all users and that optional
longer belts or seat belt extenders are available for 87.5% of the
fleet, the agency believes that a requirement to increase the belt
length in all vehicles is unnecessary."
NHTSA says that
their decision to terminate this rulemaking does not foreclose
opportunities for larger persons to use seat belts that fit. "Both
vehicles and vehicle occupants are found in a variety of shapes and
sizes. A given vehicle may not be able to accommodate all persons.
For reasons other than girth, a vehicle may be unsuitable for some
users... Vehicle buyers should take care to be sure that the vehicle
they choose is suitable for their needs, including having belts that
I am disappointed that NHTSA did not change the
federal regulation to require automakers to provide a means for
passengers of all sizes to be able to fasten their seat belt in any
vehicle they ride in. However, what they did do is to take my
petition seriously, and as a result of that, I believe pressure has
been put on automakers to voluntarily increase the length of their
seat belts or make seat belt extenders available.
also, for the first time, complied a list of autos and the length of
their seat belts, and they are making that information available on
How has Honda responded to all this?
While I haven't heard anything official from
them, Honda has addressed the issue of seat belt length in
at least some of their newer vehicles. Recently I test drove a
Honda Element with my younger sister Rae. Not only was there more
room behind the steering wheel, but I was able to fasten the seat
belts with many inches to spare. Others have written to tell me of
longer seat belts in newer Honda
Where do we go from here?
Almost every day I receive emails from
people who need seat belts, or who have learned about extenders and
how to get because of my website. I've gotten heartfelt letters from
people whose lives have been saved because they saw my website and
got an extender. I've gotten reports from people who now have
extenders from Subaru, VW, Daewoo, Infiniti, and Saturn that simply
weren't available five years ago.
My website will
continue to be a resource to people looking for larger seat belts
and I will continue this campaign to help more and more people be
able to fasten their seat belts.
I encourage you to sign the petition urging NHTSA to
change the existing seat belt regulations, and also to write
state and local representatives reminding them that laws in 49 states
require you to wear a seat belt, but the federal
regulation governing the manufacture of seat belts only requires automakers to belt
people up to 215 lbs.
I urge you to make passengers in your vehicle safer by being sure they buckle up.
You are four times more likely to die in a crash if you are not wearing your seat belt,
and in a crash, any unbelted person is a hazard to all passengers.