Your Car's Dangerous Seat

Think about the seat belts in your car. Most of them go over your shoulder and across your lap. But in millions of cars in the U.S., the middle back seat only has a lap belt.

Safety experts say that belt is not enough to protect you in a crash, The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen reports.

Heather Schouten was a typical, active 4-year-old. She loved to ride her bike and swim in the pool. But nine years ago, her life changed in an instant.

"What I've been told is that I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life," she says. "And there's nothing we can do about it."

It happened on the way to school.

Heather was buckled up in a lap belt in the middle rear seat of the family's Ford wagon.

Her mother, Sheila Schouten, says, "Everyone had always said, 'Put your kid in a seat belt.' Lap belt was fine. That's what we used. We thought we were doing right."

But everything went wrong that morning. The Schouten's collided with an SUV. Heather, wearing only the belt across her lap, was thrown forward, slamming her head on the center console and breaking her back.

Sheila Schouten says, "My husband and I did not receive injuries that were devastating whatsoever, and yet my daughter did, and she had the lap belt on."

Right now, three-point shoulder belts are required in every seat in the car, except the middle seat. It only has to have a lap belt.

And that's dangerous, say safety experts. For decades, they've been pushing automakers and the government to ban lap seat belts because they can seriously injure passengers in an accident.

Doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh have studied the effects of children wearing lap belts during a crash.

Dr. Barbara Gaines says, "The most significant, the most devastating are the spinal cord injuries. If you have an 8-year-old child who's paralyzed from the waist down, that's a lifelong thing."

The pediatric trauma surgeon says three-point belts, which cross the shoulder and the lap, are designed to hold a child upright. But as a crash test video shows, a lap seat belt allows a child to jackknife over the belt.

Dr. Gaines notes, "The worst that we've seen is a child who almost looks like he was cut in half from his upper abdomen."

While parents may not realize the danger of lap belts, safety experts say it's no secret to automakers. A Ford Motor Company video from the 1970s shows a crash test dummy in a lap belt actually being severed in half. So why haven't all automakers banned lap belts? Auto safety watchdog Clarence Ditlow says many have put profits over safety.

Ditlow says, "The car companies have been saying it's too expensive to put better belts in, three-point seat belts over lap belts. It's outrageous."

But things are about to change.

After years of debating the issue, the federal government recently passed a law that would make cars safer by eliminating that lap belt in the middle seat. The law requires a three-point belt in every back seat in all new cars by 2007. How much will the change cost automakers? The government says it's about $15 per car.

Sheila Schouten says the change is long overdue.

"To be able to do something they already know how to do at a very minimal cost, to be able to save kids from being paralyzed, some killed, I can't understand why they won't do it without being forced to by the government," she says.

Since her accident, Heather Schouten has adjusted to her new life. Her family eventually sued Ford and settled out of court, but they say no amount of money can heal the damage that was done.

Sheila Schouten says, "It doesn't take away the pain because it can't change how she is and how she's gonna have to live her life."

Heather, for her part, says she has no bitterness about what happened. But adds, "I think they should do something about the seat belts. I think they should change them. It's like they really don't care."

A spokesperson for the Ford Motor Company says, "Our heartfelt concern goes out to the Schouten family. Lap belts alone historically have a proven safety benefit based on real life performance. As with any safety technology, restraint systems have evolved with time."

You can expect to see lap belts phased out over the next few years. And safety experts do want to point out that any seat belt is better than no seat belt.