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The Great Safety Belt Interlock Fiasco

The public, the critics, and a spineless Congress muffed it.

by on Nov.30, 2009

How to enrage the public in six easy steps.

How to enrage the public in six easy steps.

While car enthusiasts, engineers, critics and regulators all rejoice today at the impressively higher safety belt wearing rates that have contributed importantly to lower rates of fatalities in crashes, the road here has been rough. Thirty-five years ago, and say 175,000 unnecessary deaths since, we as a nation had a proven preventative—but the public, the critics and above all Congress muffed it.

This seat-belt interlock somewhat crudely, prevented the car from being started unless all front-seat occupants buckled their safety belts first. With only a six-month lead-time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the device for all 1974 model cars in the U.S.

The seatbelt interlock was, in my opinion, a good idea whose time simply had not come.

There’s a persistence mythology even today about automotive safety that says you’re better off if you’re “thrown out” of a car in a crash. This was disproved in the early 1950s by an Indiana State Policeman named Elmer Paul.

Sergeant Paul noticed that, in many fatal highway crashes, the vehicle really wasn’t badly damaged, yet the people were dead. Why?

He discovered that such fatalities inevitably resulted when occupants were ejected and crushed either by the vehicle rolling over them or by crashing themselves into a tree, pole, curb or whatever.

The laws of physics are irrevocable, stating that a body — human in this case — in motion continues in motion until stopped. You don’t get “thrown out,” you keep moving after the car stops impacting something else; you “stop” when you also impact something else, whether the instrument panel or, say, a tree.

Safety Perspective!

Safety Perspective!

Paul collected good statistics on Indiana “fatals” showing that ejection was the leading cause of fatal injuries. He got the attention of the National Safety Council, the Automobile Manufacturers Association and the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory that had specialized in aircraft safety during World War II but had little to keep busy in the post-war period.