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Keynote Address, 2002

This is about More than Just One Fat Woman Trying to Fasten Her Seat Belt: My Odyssey with Honda and the NHTSA

Elizabeth Fisher

Image of Elizabeth Fisher
"Hello, Honda Customer Service? My name is Elizabeth Fisher and I'm having a problem with the seat belt in a Honda. It's too short. How do I order a seat belt extender?"

Thus began my Odyssey with Honda and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Terry Early asked me here tonight to tell the rest of my seat belt extender story. Most of you have probably heard at least a little something about my campaign for seat belt extenders. I'm going to give you information you probably don't already know, like how any citizen can petition the government to change a federal regulation, why our very own Melissa Taylor woke up screaming on February 23, 1999, and how riding unbelted can dramatically change your life.

Three and a half years ago Mara Nesbitt-Aldrich was on her honeymoon, riding in a borrowed car. There was a crash. Blood and glass were everywhere. Mara broke the windshield with her forehead. Her new husband walked away with hardly a scratch. Mara was riding unbelted because her seat belt was too short. She has permanent brain damage.

Four months after Mara's crash, I am standing in a Honda dealership, on the phone with Honda's National Customer Service department.

"Honda doesn't have seat belt extenders?" ... "Oh really, I can buy them anywhere? Even at Wal-Mart?" ... "Okay, even at Wal-Mart."

So I went to Wal-Mart. First to the automotive department, then to crafts, and sporting goods. I even looked in the shoe department. Wal-Mart may be where America shops, but it is not where America shops for seat belt extenders.

It was obvious that this customer service representative was clueless about seat belt extenders. When I got nowhere with her boss, I researched to get the fax number for the president of American Honda. One month later and my written request to him for seat belt extenders has bounced from the President of American Honda's desk, to Honda's Product Regulatory Department, to one Honda attorney, and then a second Honda attorney, to their Consumer Affairs Manager, and finally to a Team Environment Leader for Honda's Consumer Affairs Division who obviously drew the short straw.

For those of you who don't already know, I'm from Louisiana, more commonly known as Cajun country, land of Mardi Gras, boudin, jambalaya, jazz, and, well, people named Boudreaux. Even though American Honda's corporate office is in California, they managed not only to find someone with a southern accent to call me, but his name is Mr. Boudreaux. Mr. Boudreaux also has a sister fat enough that standard seat belts don't fit her. He was very nice, as we southerners are known to be, but he also told me there was nothing Honda could do for me.

Weeks later I'm on the phone with Mr. Boudreaux's supervisor, Mr. Simmons, who isn't nearly as nice as Mr. Boudreaux, and it appears that I have pissed Mr. Simmons off. Our conversation ended that day with something I will never forget. "There is nothing you can do to get Honda to change their policy. Nothing."

Well, if you know me at all, then you can guess what happened next. It wasn't a question of whether or not I was going to do something, but rather what I would do. I weighed my options. The way I saw it, I had at least two: I could sue Honda, or I could push for a Honda boycott.

Suing Honda

I decided not to do this. I couldn't match Honda's deep financial pockets and resources. Besides, I hadn't yet been damaged so it is unlikely a lawsuit would have resolved anything.

The Boycott

There are situations where boycotts are effective. I didn't feel like this was one of them. With the exception of the seat belt problem, I like Honda vehicles. Most of my family and many of my friends drive Honda. I imagine a few of you even own Hondas. Hondas last a long time, and they are reliable. Boycotting Honda would do nothing to help those who already owned Hondas. It also would do nothing to help me, because Honda didn't want me to buy an Odyssey. They told me so in a certified letter. They so much didn't want me to buy a Honda that they offered to help me buy a Toyota instead.

I needed a plan.

I needed something that wouldn't be expensive, and that I could do in my spare time at night and on the weekend, preferably using tools I already had. I needed an edge, something that would put me on even ground with Honda.

So I proceeded to pick up the biggest hammer I could find and hit Honda over the head with it. I used the Internet.

Frannie, Melissa, and I got together and took pictures with a couple of Hondas. Within a few hours after getting the photos developed, I had created my first ever website, using the simplest program I could find to create a web page: Microsoft Word. My website was one page long, and told my story. I posted it on America Online using the screen name NoBelts4Us. The title?

"Honda Says NO to Seat Belt Extenders"

Now for the day Melissa woke up screaming.

The next thing I did was to write my local newspaper. They interviewed me and took photos of us with the Hondas. The morning Melissa woke up screaming was the same morning I stepped out of the shower to hear our radios blaring. We had made the front page and I was the topic of conversation on the morning drive radio programs.

Right there, on the front page of the paper was Melissa's picture, with her Honda, along with a positive article about my Honda dilemma.

And Honda said there was nothing I could do.

Next I had my first national coverage, in USA Today, followed by the front page of the New York Times, and a great 3-page article in People Magazine.

Remember, Honda said there was nothing I could do.

I wrote hundreds of other letters, to the mayor, the governor, Congressmen and women, even Bill Clinton and Al Gore. I wrote the whole Honda Board of Directors, both here and in Japan, I wrote every safety organization I could find. I even wrote Hillary and Tipper.

I spent every spare minute on the Internet, searching for an answer. In their one letter to me, Honda told me that "As required by federal standards, Honda's seat belts are designed to fit 95% of all U.S. adults in any seating position."

That wasn't exactly true. I consulted the Code of Federal Regulation and found out that what the regulation actually said is that automakers are only required to manufacture seat belts that fit people up to the 95th percentile U.S. adult male, who they defined as weighing 215 lbs. This regulation is based on height/weight data from 1962, and was written at a time when we did not know the value of seat belts.

So I had found the problem and the reason for Honda's refusal to manufacture seat belt extenders. They were following the letter of the law, but this is a regulation that needed to be changed.

One of the elected officials I wrote was Senator John Breaux. He told me that any citizen could petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking that a regulation be changed or amended.

In April of 2000, I filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking that the existing federal regulation governing the manufacture of seat belts, which only required automakers to manufacture seat belts that fit people up to 215 lbs., be changed. I asked that the new regulation require automakers to make seat belts available for sale, and also make longer seat belts an option at the time of purchase. NHTSA created a docket for public comment on my petition. Bill Fabrey, the founder of NAAFA, and last year's keynote speaker, told me NHTSA had been moved to action by as few as 100 letters.

Remember how Honda said there was nothing I could do? Well, maybe they weren't counting on what you could do.

I went out on a limb and asked you to write 215 letters, one for each pound of the current regulation. I asked for 215. I even made a banner for my website that said 215 lbs., 215 letters, to encourage you to write. So far there are over 600 entries in NHTSA's public docket, and hundreds of additional letters have been sent to Honda and elected officials, many of these letters are from people in this room.

I'd like to share a sampling of the letters with you tonight. The first is from Lisa, an actress and NAAFA member.

Lisa

I am an active woman of size. I am 5'5" and weigh approximately 320 pounds. I also drive a Honda. I was pulled over in Torrance, CA, just miles from American Honda's corporate headquarters, in June of 1999 because I was not wearing my seatbelt. The arresting officer pulled the belt out all the way and with a wide gesture said, "THIS doesn't fit you?" I fought the ticket in September of 1999. The Federal regulation says that Honda doesn't have to make a seat belt that fits me, and the State law says I must wear a seat belt. But the court ruled in the States favor and the ticket stands.

Bonnie

Bonnie's boyfriend recently purchased a Subaru Forester. "It wasn't until after we bought the vehicle that we discovered that the seat belts are too short." Subaru told Bonnie that their belts meet "very stringent federal specifications for safety." Her question to NHTSA is "what good are stringent safety requirements if I cannot fasten the belt?"

Jade, from Seattle

In 1987, on the way to my prenatal appointment, I suffered serious injury to myself and risked serious injury to my unborn child due to the inability to fit into a standard sized seatbelt. I was 35 weeks pregnant (almost full term) and my head went through the windshield while my body broke apart the dashboard. At the time, I weighed 235 lbs. Though injured, we both survived.

Hope. a Big As TEXAS attendee who was unable to be with us tonight

I am a mother of four children, three now living. One died in a car accident two years ago because he didn't have on a seat belt. Every time I get into a car that does not allow me to buckle the seat belt, I think of his death. I know what not wearing a seat belt can mean. I also have to live with the fact that my husband and oldest daughter are beyond the ridiculously low 215-pound maximum that the seat belts were designed for. I do not want to lose another loved one. Something has to be done.

Kari Rogers, a firefighter and EMT

As a firefighter/NREMT-Basic, I see what happens to people who do not buckle up. I have been a volunteer firefighter for four years and I have worked a lot of wrecks in that time. I see first hand that seat belts save lives. These people should have the same advantages to buckle up as the rest of us. At 6ft tall and 150 lbs., if I am given the opportunity to wear a seat belt to protect myself, so should everyone else have that same opportunity. People come in all shapes and sizes just like they come from different races and backgrounds.

Mark Gaudet, EMS Instructor

Let us not forget, the primary purpose of the seatbelt, second only to the protection of the individual restrained, is to keep all the occupants of the vehicle in their places should a crash occur. Imagine a minor motor vehicle crash occurring, and the drive losing his/her place in the vehicle. How much control of the vehicle can be maintained then? Also imagine a projectile larger than 215 pounds being propelled at the restrained driver during a minor crash. How much control of the vehicle can be maintained then?

The point being, seatbelts not only save the lives of the occupants of the offending vehicle in a crash, but also provide the driver with a better opportunity for controlling the vehicle after the crash. This can not be done if the occupants are knocking each other out of position in the vehicle, more importantly knocking the driver away from the controlling features of the vehicle.

Rhonda

I find it ludicrous to force people for their own safety to wear seatbelts by law only to make them unavailable for people of size. How can we be expected to obey the law if the law excludes us? Who is going to be the one to tell my children the reason I died in the accident is because of the law? Who is going to tell them that for pennies, a seatbelt extender could have been made for my Honda but that Honda refused. Who will be the one to tell them that I was not thought of when the law for seatbelts was made simply because of my size? Are you to say that because I am fat...I don't matter?

Marilyn

The seatbelt in my Honda barely goes around all my glory. In the winter, with the addition of a thick coat, seatbelt could more accurately be described as tourniquet.

The seat is pushed back as far as it will go. I have grown my toenails to ridiculous lengths. I do not inhale. I drive quickly. I pray for short routes and spring.

I have a friend who fits comfortably behind the wheel of her Ford Escort, and into the belt provided with this vehicle. The same friend fits in the seat of my Honda. The belt is a mere bagatelle, missing its mark by 8". In order to sit belted, in the front passenger seat, she must admire the ceiling light for the entire trip.

You need seatbelt extenders. Not excuses. Not reasons. Extenders. You have a wonderful product - I know, because someone tried to steal my car. The service I receive from my dealer is superb. But you need seatbelt extenders. If airlines are able to offer this service, then I think Honda could manage, too.

Please let me know when I may wear my winter coat, seatbelt and breathe simultaneously.

Karen Stimson

When I was a new driver in the 1970's I was in a head-on collision with a truck on an icy highway. My car was totaled, yet my husband and I walked away from the crash shaken, but with no injuries. The seatbelt in my car wasn't long enough to go around me, and a seatbelt extender was not available, so I had pieced together the two halves of one of the unused lap belts from the rear seat of the car and fashioned them into a homemade seatbelt extender. That jerry-rigged device put together on my home sewing machine (which would probably have failed any structural engineering test) saved my life and perhaps my husband's as well, since it kept me in place in my vehicle during the crash. If a homemade device like this can save lives, how much better must manufacturer-provided seatbelt extenders be? I shouldn't have had to make my own seatbelt extender to avoid being killed in an accident.
Russell Williams told NHTSA that he can think of no reason why being fat would eliminate the need for seat belts.

One Honda driver told NHTSA that she had purchased a new Honda Insight the week before and even asked the sales person for a seat belt extender. He said that it would have to be gotten from Honda USA. Now that she owns the car, she finds that Honda refuses to even make them.

This isn't just a women's issue either. Here's a letter from a police officer:

As a 6'04", 300#, large stature male working as a police officer, I find that it is a struggle to work with the current seat belts as the belts must get safely around not only my body, but my duty belt full of equipment. I know other police who experience this same problem... and while feeling conflicted about the hypocrisy of driving without safety restraints, have no other choice than to go without placing themselves at risk.

Rental Cars are a problem too

Another man writes:
My experience with my personal car does not require me to use a seat belt extender ('95 Olds Cutlass Supreme); however, the majority of the cars that I either have rented or ride in do not allow me to use a seat belt.

I travel a great deal for my company and, with this travel, I am required to rent from all major car rental establishments. The most commen occurrence when I ask an agent if they have seat belt extenders is a blank stare, as if I was asking for them to produce the Rosetta stone! Other comments I've received are "it's not our responsibility" (when in a state seat belt use is the law) or "If you go out and buy one, we'll reimburse you for it" (as if I had time to scour a city, that I was only going to be in for hours, to look for a dealer who would even have an extension to fit the model I was renting). Obviously, people of size who rent cars that do not have seat belts to fit them are in a no-win situation. They need the car, there aren't any (available) seat belt extenders, and the car rental establishment virtually washes their hands of the situation.

One family handled this problem by returning the vehicle they'd just purchased.

I purchased a 2001 Honda Odyssey on Labor Day of 2001. Because the Dealer's Parts Dept. was closed the salesperson told me that I could get an extender when they opened on Tuesday. When I tried to get the extenders I was told Honda did not offer this device. When I called customer service at Honda and explained my problem I was told "May be you bought the wrong car" I can not believe that this is such a problem when a short five or six inch piece of fabric strapping with proper ends to correct the situation.

The dealer offered to refund my money and return my trade in, but we really like the car in every other respect.

And finally, sometimes children say the darndest things.

A mother writes:
Every day I buckle my 4 y/o son in our car. He asked me one day, "Why do I have to be buckled Mommy?"...I said.."Because it's the law and Mommy wants you to be safe"...He said "Why don't you buckle and be safe Mommy?"...to which I responded.."Well, the seltbelt doesn't fit honey."....In all the wisdom of a 4 y/o child he said.."Well why don't they just make them bigger...to make my Mommy safe?".
Remember how Honda said there was nothing I could do?

Three years ago, when I first started this campaign, you could type the phrase "seat belt extenders" in a search engine on the internet and get no meaningful results. Today you get pages of links, to newspaper articles, magazine articles, and websites, including mine, ifisher.com, which has had 185,000 visitors. You, the fat community, have embraced this cause. Seat belt extenders have also found their place in popular culture. USA Today, the New York Times, and People Magazine have all written positively about this campaign and the need for longer seat belts. There has also been positive coverage in Automotive Digest, the Midwest City Sun, Australian Women's Forum Magazine, KKNG Radio, 3 On Your Side in Phoenix, AZ, the New Zealand Herald, Car Talk, Honda Beat, The Sun, Automotive Resources International, Berliner Morginpost in Germany, KOMO 4 News, KCPQ in Seattle, Radiance Magazine, Healthy Weight Journal, oooO Baby BABY, Dimensions Magazine, BBW Magazine, and Sondra Solovay's book Tipping the Scales of Justice. I have interviewed by reporters from Germany, France, Australia, and Czechoslovakia. Mara Nesbitt Aldrich has been invited twice to speak about this issue at the International Three Flags Safety Belt Campaign. They were so moved by our dilemma that 85 police officers, sheriff deputies and state troopers signed a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, asking that automakers be required to provide a means for larger passengers to fasten their seat belts. Jade Starrett has been interviewed on television in Seattle, Lora Holeman has been interviewed several times in Oklahoma, Lynda Finn has been interviewed in New Zealand.

Dennis Miller even rants about seat belt extenders in his stand up comedy routine. And recently, Starr Jones, a large woman in every way, played an attorney in an episode of Strong Medicine on Lifetime TV. In this episode Jones is shown dictating to her assistant about "suing the car maker, the dealership, and even the salesman who sold her client a car with seat belts that were too short." She quotes information from my website almost word for word.

Honda told me there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could do to get them to change their policy on seat belt extenders. They were wrong.

In February 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration granted my petition. This means that they agree the issues I raised in my petition warrant further discussion.

You know, when Mr. Simmons at Honda so pointedly told me there was nothing I could do, I believe he meant to intimidate me into backing off. I spent the first 27 years of my life being a doormat, not wanting to make waves so I wouldn't attract attention. Ten years ago I began exploring the world of size acceptance. It began with NAAFA and an exercise class for large women. There I learned it was okay to move, and to take up whatever amount of space I needed in order to be comfortable. Six years ago I attended my first Big As Texas assembly. I remember sitting in the back my first night, feeling that glorious feeling of being in a place where not only was it was okay to be me, but a place that I could celebrate who I am. I come back here every year for a fix, and for a great big dose of empowerment. I hope you will leave here empowered to go home and tackle something about your life or your world that you've always wanted to change.

Honda told me there was nothing I could do. Nothing.

Remember that phone call I made to American Honda customer service, the phone call that kicked off this whole campaign? The one where they told me they didn't have seat belt extenders? Tuesday I made another call.

The voice at the other end of the phone said, "Honda Canada Customer Service."

"Hi," I said. "I'm having a problem with the seat belts in my 1999 Honda Odyssey. They're too short. Do you have extenders?"

Yes, she said, we do have seat belt extenders for the 1999 Odyssey.

I checked again with American Honda and they're still not available here but I have to wonder if Honda knows something I don't. Perhaps they also had a conversation with Steve Kratzke, NHTSA's Associate Administrator for Safety Performance Standards. I wrote Mr. Kratzke earlier in the week and told him I'd be coming here tonight to talk to you, and I wanted to be able to give you all an update on the progress of my petition.

Here is his reply:

Hi, Ms. Fisher:

I can't yet tell you any specifics of what's going on, but you are right, we are delayed. We have reached agreement on what we want to do and our lawyers are now drafting a notice laying out the next step. We hope to publish this in the next few months. Sorry for the absence of specifics, but we have moved forward since I wrote to you. We will discuss more with you after our notice comes out this spring.

Honda told me there was nothing I could do.

Three years have passed, thousands of letters have been written, there has been positive international coverage, you can get seat belt extenders for the Honda Odyssey in Canada, and now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has granted my petition, and they tell me their lawyers are drafting a notice laying out the next step.

If this federal regulation is changed, and I have every reason to believe it will be, not only will it give us a tool to make us safer in our vehicles, it will also be the first time in history that a federal law has been written specifically addressing the needs of larger Americans. This will be a significant accomplishment for our community, one that could not have been done without your letters, emails, phone calls, and your willingness to put yourselves out there and take a stand.

Thank you.


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3/02