Child car seat recalls get few responses Many safety flaws going unrepaired

November 12, 1992|By Pamela Curtin | Pamela Curtin,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Car safety seats may not be as safe as their owners think they are.

According to a new report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only five of 16 recent car seat recalls had owner response rates greater than 10 percent.

"For the person who has a child seat, if it has been recalled, that is a clear indication that there is a safety defect and your child is riding at risk," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer safety group.

The 9.3 million seats involved in the recalls, manufactured between April 1985 and August 1991, have a number of shortcomings, some of which require simple, quick repairs.

Some recalls are to replace small, removable parts that can be swallowed by small children. Some deal with seat belts that do not fasten completely. Another set of seats is being recalled for failing federal safety standards altogether.

But the response rate to recalls suggests people are not finding out about these problems, auto safety advocate say.

When an automaker, puts out a recall on one of its models, for example, it is able to reach most of the owners and usually has a response rate of 50 percent to 60 percent.

"It's easy for vehicle manufacturers to go to a state and get the up-to-date registration lists," said Stephen Oesch, general counsel for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

For child safety seats, there is no standardized way of registering owners, and Mr. Ditlow said there is only about a 15 percent response rate to recalls.

The NHTSA, the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal regulations for automobile safety, recently issued a ruling requiring all manufacturers to include registration cards with their products. That would enable them to keep track of consumers and contact them if problems arose.

"In general, people are not too willing to fill out a card like that," said Jack Martin, a spokesman for Fisher Price. "We really encourage people to do that because it's the only way of knowing who is buying our products."

In addition to contacting consumers who have returned the cards, Mr. Martin said, the company has taken a number of other steps to alert people of the problems: sending out press releases, setting up toll-free numbers, buying advertising, alerting the government and television networks, and sending posters to retail outlets where the products were sold.

Consumers can call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Auto Safety Hotline, (800) 424-9393, to get more information about recalls.

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