By Bob Blake
The use of airbags has overshadowed common seat belts. Both, however, are necessary for crash survival. Since the seat belt came first, I will start there.
The next time you click that seat belt, thank – or curse – Edward J. Claghorn, the designer. He received an 1885 patent for a crude and bulky device for “securing the person to a fixed object.”
It took 75 years before manufacturers commonly adapted them to passenger cars. They were an option in the 1949 now-defunct Nash. The 1956 Ford had a “Lifeguard Design” safety package that included seat belts, a deep-dish steering wheel, padded dash/ visors and reinforced doors. For those innovations, Motor Trend Magazine bestowed their Car of the Year Award. Auto buyers, however, were not impressed. Henry Ford II, then company president, reportedly quipped, “Ford is selling safety and Chevrolet is selling cars!
With more cars traveling at higher speeds, the mathematics of the situation became apparent! The force of a 170 pound person, traveling 30 mph and coming to an abrupt stop is staggering – upwards of ten tons!
Use of automobile lap seat belts became law in January, 1968. Shoulder restraints followed a few years later.
What about back seat passengers? Without proper restraints, the back seat rider is propelled forward like a projectile. The driver is compressed forward and backwards. Unbuckled rear seat riders have also been ejected. Soon, all occupants had three-point belts.
Recent studies show the majority of car crashes occur at less than 40 mph and most fatal accidents happen within 25 miles of home. Hence, a restraint system is necessary for even short trips.
Requirements vary from nation to nation. Seat restraints are mandated in England unless the motorist is backing up. Indonesia requires belts only in the front seats; therefore, many low-end cars have none for rear passengers. Public buses in the Philippines only require belts for passengers directly behind the driver!
So… why not build automobiles that do not start without a restrained driver? This was tried in the mid-70s with a “starter interlock” device that prevented ignition without a belted driver – a reasonable idea… in theory. This upstart system did not like to be fooled! A sequence of events was necessary to start the car. First, the driver had to securely close the front door and fasten the three-point belt before the car started. The little gizmo measured the length of belt extension so it could not be fastened behind the occupant.
Oh yes…the driver could not place a purse or large package beside him as a sensor assumed the weight was an unrestrained passenger and prevented starting. As the cars aged, switches and detection devices failed. Frustration and public outcry finally cajoled the government to rescind the law.
Requirements for seat restraints are over 50- years old, but motorists continue to disregard them. The Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) reported 22,441 motor vehicle deaths in 2015 and some 50-59% of these occupants were not restrained. Without the belts, the risk of ejection dramatically increases. Statistics shows upwards of 80% of those thrown out are killed!