Chrysler Contests Government Recall

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WASHINGTON, D.C.: The government is suing Chrysler to force compliance with a recall of more than 91,000 cars that federal regulators say are fitted with unsafe seat belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration contend that the rear seat belts in the 1995 Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus models have a defective anchoring system and are not strong enough. The case is the first time the NHTSA has taken an automaker to court for failing a government safety standard test. "Usually the government and automakers try to work out an agreement ahead of time," TIME's Joseph Szczesny says. "But Chrysler felt nothing was wrong with these cars and wanted to establish a precedent. The company does not want to be subject to an overly restrictive interpretation of the rules." The motive is also financial. "It would be a major blow, both in terms of public relations and the company's financial picture, if Chrysler loses the case," Szczesny says. "The recall would require a pretty expensive fix, which is one of the reasons why the company wants to avoid it if possible."

The present dispute centers on whether the government properly tested the belts. According to NHTSA documents, when Chrysler duplicated the federal tests, the belts still failed. Chrysler contends the anchor system works properly when the testing equipment is placed closer to the seat. The automaker says the government standard does not specify how close to the seat the equipment should be placed. The two sides will conduct further tests to use in the court case. Szczesny reports that the government will also try to subpoena internal Chrysler documents to see what the company's engineers found as they prepared the cars for production. Lamia Abu-Haidar