Once upon a time, the National Highway Traffic Administration, or NHTSA, the federal agency charged with among other things setting safety standards of automobiles, wanted to take seat belts out of cars.
So did the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, perhaps best known today for its crash testing, which said that the added cost of airbag installation would be offset by the removal of seatbelts.
It’s largely forgotten now, but in the early Seventies, the big push in safety was for “passive restraints.” The typical driver, it was thought, couldn’t be expected to put on a seatbelt, nor would other occupants in the car. And in fact, most didn’t.
So according to automobile safety proponents, it was up to the government to require something to protect people in the case of collisions. And according to Douglas Toms, then administrator for the NHTSA, the best candidate was the airbag.
In fact, NHTSA had proposed eliminating seatbelts in favor of airbags as of August, 1975. Toms defended the idea at the Second International Conference on Passive Restraints, according to an article in the May 29, 1972, Automotive News, taking what the paper’s engineering editor Richard Wright called “an adamant stand in favor of air bags.”
According to Wright, Detroit engineers were “dead set” against removing seatbelts “even if airbags are installed,” Said Wright, “They see airbags as a supplement to, not a substitute for, airbags.”
However, NHTSA’s “Standard 208” required that by August, 1973, manufacturers had to install either passive restraint systems, or improved belts with ignition interlocks to prevent the car from being started unless the driver’s seatbelt was fastened. History has it that no manufacturer had a passive restraint system ready; all went with the ignition interlock which proved highly unpopular. The seatbelt buzzer was already in place, though at that time, lap belts and particularly shoulder belts often were not.
Eventually, “passive restraints” would be replaced by “supplemental restraint system” in the owner’s manual or the “SRS” often seen on dashboards and the side of car seats, and Ford has developed a seatbelt with an airbag. The requirement for unbelted dummy testing remains, but by calling the airbag a supplemental system, they’ll also wear seatbelts.
But if there was a time when automakers resisted the airbag, there was also a time when safety proponents thought seatbelts were unnecessary. Times do change.