Reports of 'exploding seat-belt' incidents reach double figures

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Reports of 'exploding seat-belt' incidents reach double figures

25th June 2013

There have now been more than 10 cases where motorists have been affected or injured by the bizarre phenomenon of ‘exploding seat-belts,’ leading to calls for a full investigation into a possible defect.

More than a year ago, Fentons Solicitors alerted consumer watchdogs after four people were left injured and badly shaken when the seat-belt pre-tensioners in their cars – all Peugeot 307cc models - detonated whilst they were driving. Since then the total number of people who have sought legal advice from the same personal injury specialists has more than doubled, but amazingly the authorities still fail to see the need to recall the vehicles.

“The first I heard of this bizarre phenomenon was when we were contacted by a client to say she had been driving to work and her car seat belts had literally exploded,” said Louise Farrar, an associate with Fentons Solicitors LLP. “She had absolutely no idea what had happened. She said there was a loud bang inside her car and the cabin filled with smoke as she was travelling along the road, and it felt as if something had hit her hard in the chest. She instinctively braked and the car cut out and came to a dead stop.”

The driver could not see any visible damage or any reason why her car would not restart. “She called a breakdown service and the mechanic said that some kind of an electrical fault had activated the front seat-belt pre-tensioners and the roll bars in the back of the car.”

Pre-tensioners, which are mainly found in newer vehicles, are designed to pre-emptively tighten a seat belt in a collision to prevent the occupant from jerking forward. Like airbags, pre-tensioners are triggered by sensors in the car's body, and most use explosively expanding gas to drive a piston which retracts the belt. Likewise the car’s ‘roll-over hoops’ are only supposed to activate if the car is involved in an accident and rolls over.

“We began investigating and discovered that exploding seat belts was a topic of conversation on many online forums,” said Louise. “All of the reported incidents seemed to focus on the same make and model of car as our client’s – a Peugeot 307cc,” she said. “Through one of these forums we were contacted by a second and third victim who had experienced the very same bizarre and terrifying problem, and when another driver came forward it became apparent this was not just an isolated incident.”

Louise said the vehicles affected all appeared to be in the same age bracket, between 2003 and 2006. But when the motorists contacted Peugeot to report the incidents, the French car giant initially refused to repair the vehicle or pay any repair costs – which ran into the thousands - as the vehicles were no longer covered by warranty.

“In each case the fault seems to have been caused in the same way, with water leaking into the spare wheel housing and then into the electrics, causing a malfunction,” she said. “As the number of inquiries we’ve taken over the last few months has increased, Peugeot has now started to take a different approach to our claims.

“After they settled the first case in May 2011, paying damages for the injuries sustained by our client and the costs of repairing the vehicle, we subsequently settled another case where Peugeot has written-off the vehicle and paid damages, and I am currently negotiating a write-off settlement for another client,” she said. “Another victim sustained an injury which prevented them from working for a considerable length of time, and I am still negotiating a settlement on their behalf.

“In total we have now had more than 10 inquiries concerning this same issue – more than half a dozen alone in the last year since Which? magazine first highlighted our concerns.

“It’s not just an issue in the UK either,” she said. “A driver from Sweden had read about our cases online and got in touch to say he’d suffered exactly the same problem with the same model vehicle.”

Louise said the UK Vehicle & Operator Services Agency (VOSA) was initially alerted to the situation after the first client contacted lawyers, but no action was deemed necessary. More concerns were raised when more people came forward to report the same problem, but again VOSA said there was no need for further action.

“All of the incidents we’ve been contacted about have occurred whilst the vehicles have been travelling at relatively low speeds, and thankfully none of the injuries sustained have been life-changing,” she said. “But if this were to happen when a car was travelling at high speed, or in heavy, fast-moving traffic, I dread to think of the consequences. It could be horrific.”

In light of the number of cases being reported, Louise now hopes VOSA will take another look at the issue.

“When we talk about the number of cases being in double figures, that’s only referring to those people who have contacted Fentons Solicitors,” she said. “For all we know there could be a significant number of people who have either not reported incidents or who have sought advice elsewhere.

“While exploding seat-belts sound like something out of a film, it is obvious that there are too many drivers who have encountered the same terrifying problem with their vehicles for this not to be worth investigating,” he said. “This dangerous issue needs to be addressed before anyone suffers more serious injuries when their seat belts explode.”

How can Fentons Solicitors help?
If you think that you might be affected by this issue or if you require further information, please contact Fentons on 0800 0191 297 or fill in the online claims questionnaire.

Read the Which? report on this issue here