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SPECIAL REPORTS

Up Close: Seatbelt safety in question

"These are lives that can be saved"

12:00 AM CDT on Monday, June 30, 2003

By Eileen Faxas / 11 News

Click to watch video

HOUSTON -- You buckle up your child and think that's enough. But is it? The 11 News Defenders uncover a story of safety compromised. After months of investigation, consumer reporter Eileen Faxas looked at the choice an automaker made that could put young lives in danger.

Our story begins in the big beautiful house with the big beautiful family that never wanted for anything.

"I really did know I was blessed in very many ways," said Mary Beth Arcidiacono, her head leaning on her hand, "No question about it. It was perfect."

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"No question about it. It was perfect," said Mary Beth Arcidiacono of her family before the devastating accident.

It was mom, dad, and four healthy children -- until August 8, 1998.

"Yeah, the day our lives changed forever," whispered John Arcidiacono.

It was the end of the Arcidiacono family's Colorado vacation.

All the kids -- Johnny, Christopher, Joey and Allie -- climbed into their mother's Chevy Suburban for the ride home to Houston. On the highway, Mary Beth Arcidiacono turned to calm her kids and swerved. Her 5,000-pound Suburban rolled over four times.

And when it stopped -- "I looked and my two older sons were not in their seats," said the mother of four.

Where were 13-year-old Johnny and 11-year-old Christopher?

They were thrown into the median. Mrs. Arcidiacono says the rest was a blur, followed by a painfully clear ending:

"I was screaming 'Hold on, Johnny,' because I just didn't know," she remembered. "But I did know. I could see all the doctors working around him on the table." She paused for a long moment, then softly said, "He didn't make it."

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Johnny Arcidiacono was killed in 1998 when the family's GM Suburban rolled over.

Christopher's life was still in the balance and no one knew if he'd survive his head injuries. He did. "It's fun to be alive," he told us, between video games.

Christopher is now brain damaged and physically scarred. He can't remember the crash, but he remembers his big brother. "I wish Johnny was alive so I can see him," he said. "So we can experience life."

After shock, then survival, came questions for the Arcidiaconos. Why did the boys fly out of the truck, if they were wearing their seat belts?

A Colorado State Trooper even captured video at the scene of the crash that clearly shows the belts were still buckled in where the boys used to be.

The family's lawyer, Ron Franklin, found it. "They deep-sixed that tape. They deep-sixed that whole file," he said. "And just hoped that the whole case would go away."

He accuses General Motors of trying to cover up a potential problem with the seat belts it puts in its passenger cars and trucks. It's a problem that puts people in danger, especially children who are four to eight years old and 40 to 80 pounds, in rollover accidents.

And documents the 11 News Defenders obtained strongly suggest General Motors knew of the problem for a very long time.

A former GM Engineer testified in a deposition on behalf of General Motors as a paid consultant, and had this to say: "I knew that the 4- to 8-year-old child was a group of children that was difficult to accommodate with a three-point belt."

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Have a question or story idea? Contact the Defenders

Pam Oviatt went on to say GM knew children were especially in danger of getting ejected. She uses the phrase – escaping. "I think the child would have a greater opportunity to escape the belt system, given the right accident configuration," she said.

The system is your standard lap and shoulder belt attached to the frame of the vehicle. But accident reconstructionist Cam Cope says it's a widely known industry fact that children who outgrow their child seats are too small for grownup seat belts.

Cope said children will die in survivable accidents and added, "So will adults. But primarily, it will be the children."

But there's another seat belt that holds children and adults equally well. It's a seat belt praised in several internal GM memos obtained by the 11 News Defenders that say this different belt system "improves safety performance", "occupant retention", "rollover protection" and works "for all size occupants in all seat positions".

This lap and shoulder belt system looks just like the old one, but for one obvious difference -- this lap and shoulder belt attaches not to the frame of the vehicle but to the seat.

Cope explained, "The better the seat belt fits you and the more snug the belt system is the better the restraint system."

One GM engineer even wrote: "The corporation has a legal and moral obligation to evaluate the feasibility and cost/benefit."

An engineer wrote that memo, eight years before Johnny Arcidiacono's last ride.

But General Motors had already made a calculation in a memo titled: Potential Lives Saved by All Belts to Seats. In it, GM estimates 275 to 567 people would be saved in one year if GM switched to the better belt in all its vehicles.

The Arcidiacono's attorney thinks it was written as early as 1989.

But GM didn't attach belts to seats in its Suburban until the year 2000 -- more than 10 years later when GM put attached belts in the front seat of new Suburbans.

We showed our findings to Joan Claybrook, the head of Public Citizen, a consumer safety group founded by Ralph Nader.

After reviewing our documents, Claybrook said, "I've never seen documents like this, as complete as the ones you've put together." And concluded, "I think General Motors should have redesigned their belts immediately."

Why didn't it? GM didn't answer that question, but sent the 11 News Defenders a statement -- offering the Arcidiacono family "our deepest sympathies" and blaming the "tragic consequences" on the "extreme violence of the crash which happened after the driver lost control." Adding: "The suburban was not responsible."

And despite those internal documents that praise the benefits of belts attached to seats, the company wrote:

"The all belts to seats system is neither practical nor appropriate for all GM car and truck seating positions."

But that's not mentioned as a disadvantage in another company document. It says the problem with all belts to seats is a possible increase in the cost of the car -- about $50 bucks -- plus extensive design work.

GM's spokesman told the Defenders: "It's about safety. People who say it's a cost issue have no idea what they're talking about."

About GM's response, Claybrook said, "They may say it has nothing to do with cost, but obviously this memo makes it very clear that it does."

John Arcidiacono put it this way: "I don't know how to describe them other than insensitive, callous, not caring about anything -- other than maybe their business."

So the old seat belts remain in millions of Suburbans built before the year 2000 and inside other GM cars and trucks carrying millions of families who may have no idea.

"These are lives that can be saved," says Mary Beth Arcidiacono.

The Arcidiaconos sued General Motors and one week into the trial GM settled the case, admitting no wrongdoing.

In response to our questions GM did point to a pamphlet it sponsors that says kids are riding at risk and need booster seats. But the pamphlet doesn't come with vehicles. You'd need to order it from a group called Safe Kids.

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