By Keith Crain
DETROIT (Sept. 9, 2013) — I am always amazed that no one in the automobile industry seems to learn from history.
To paraphrase the adage: If you don't learn from history, you are doomed to repeat mistakes.
It is possible that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) might repeat one of its more memorable disasters.
The question of installing ignition interlocks for front seat belts is once again before NHTSA. Those devices were actually mandated with NHTSA's support in the early 1970s as a way to increase seat belt use.
This time, NHTSA is responding to a BMW request that the German auto maker not be required to pass NHTSA's safety tests to ensure unbelted passengers are protected in crashes if BMW installs front seat belt interlocks. BMW's position is that if all front passengers are belted, BMW shouldn't have to add expensive and bulky safety devices such as knee bolsters that protect only the unbelted.
For now, NHTSA has not blessed BMW's request so the company must keep safety testing for both the belted and unbelted. But it agreed to study BMW's request—so the seat belt interlock isn't dead yet.
The last time this issue came up, the seat belt interlock actually became a regulation, and that almost caused a riot among consumers. It was repealed even quicker than it was put into place.
Actually, we must credit Lee Iacocca and Ford Motor Co. for the seat belt interlock, one of their "better ideas."
Ford was so adamantly against airbags at the time that Mr. Iacocca floated the idea that Ford would rather have seat belt interlocks than airbags. NHTSA thought it sounded like a pretty good idea and it quickly became a federal regulation for the 1974 model year—just weeks before domestic and imported cars went on sale.
You could not start your car until you and anybody else seated in front had buckled up. In mere weeks, there was a consumer revolt, and it all fell into the lap of Congress.
In a very bipartisan fashion, Congress quickly repealed the regulation.
Now, NHTSA is studying the seat belt interlock again. And we already have airbags. It has only been lately that everyone seems to agree that the combination of seat belts and airbags gives occupants the best chance of avoiding injury.
If seat belt interlocks ever were mandated again, we would have the same revolt again. People would rediscover that they had to buckle up any groceries put on the front seat before they could start their cars. As in the 1970s, it would be a complete mess.
It would be incomprehensible if such a disaster of a regulation were floated again. Doesn't anyone read history?
Keith Crain is editor-in-chief of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business, and chairman of Crain Communications Inc., TB's parent company. He can be reached via email at Keith Crain at [email protected].