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Click It Or Stick It

Seatbelts get tangled up in the latest safety legislation proposal

Andy Bolig - December 12, 2013 10:00 AM

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If you were into new cars, 1974 wasn’t exactly car-guy nirvana.

There was a lot going on in the automotive world and most of it was in the form of a question. How can we meet the new fuel-mileage requirements? How can we make smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient cars appealing to the American car buyer? Who has fuel? And to Sammy Hagar’s dismay, the 55-mph speed limit was introduced.

A ghost of the mid-’70s has come back to haunt us amid all the hot pants, bell-bottoms and platform shoes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently received a petition from at least one auto manufacturer (BMW to be exact) to let them use seat-belt ignition interlocks in their products in lieu of certain crash tests. This is not unlike Ford’s efforts in the early ’70s to push the interlock in place of installing the more costly air bag systems that were becoming en vogue to legislators. By 1974, regulators tried to mandate the ignition interlocks, which prevented a vehicle from starting unless seat belts are fastened. They were intended to prod more people to use seat belts. The rules prompted such a public outcry that Congress made it illegal to require the interlocks.

For those “history repeats itself” types, the door was re-opened a little bit back in 2012, when Congress passed a transportation bill that lifted some of the restrictions. Now, with airbags securely positioned in our steering wheels, dashes, doors, side panels, headliners and even our seats, the ol’ ignition interlock is back on the bargaining table. Seems we’re still not safe enough from ourselves.

Before we get into a “seatbelts save lives” argument, we’ll have to agree on both sides that they CAN. Why else would they have become so integral in racecars and the like? Then again, don’t helmets and full-on firesuits save lives also? Why not mandate them? Heck, most states don’t even require helmets on motorcycles.

On a lighter note, whose blood pressure doesn’t raise and you wind up yelling at the screen when the next victim in your new, favorite horror flick fumbles with the keys, trying to get to safety behind some door. Half the suspense is waiting to see if they are smart enough to operate a simple door key under duress! The same might be said for a seatbelt.

Some folks have taken that into consideration and opted for a less-intrusive interlock. They envision a system that might simply make the vehicle unable to go into drive. Others have considered that you might not necessarily need a seatbelt to move the car around in the garage or, simply move it in the driveway. They’ve allowed that instead of locking the car down, more enjoyable items, like the radio or the air conditioning, could be secured away from the unsecured occupants. Some others hold a more dualistic approach that if “seatbelts save lives” and “speed kills” then by limiting the speed the unbuckled can achieve, the car is now safer. Unless of course, you buckle up, then you can speed — safely.

Those within BMW hope that NHTSA’s findings will lead to changes in federal vehicle safety standards by 2017 or 2018. Their hopes are that with the new standard, they would be able to build lighter, more fuel-efficient cars to meet the more stringent carbon dioxide emissions standards.

It always seems to come back around to a direct benefit to the manufacturer. I’m curious why money or fuel-saving alternatives are always sold to the buyer under the currency of our safety? On the other hand, where does it end? Might we find ourselves donning driving helmets on our daily commutes for groceries? Do we REALLY need to be protected from ourselves this intensely?

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