Consider the automobile seatbelt. We hardly do anymore. The sweeping motion — pulling your 3-point seat belt across your lap and shoulders and into its lock slot may be America’s #1 repetitive motion…unless, of course it’s the fast smack of the forehead that accompanies the cry – Trump’s done what!!
That’s how it is about seatbelts, no one wants to think about ‘em, no one wants to talk about ‘em, but after years of grumbling and resistance, almost everyone uses them.
Here’s a brief history. Seat-belts go back to 1885, the horse-and-buggy era, and were offered for automobiles by the 1920s, but no one was very interested in selling them and few people wanted to buy them.
That changed during the 1950s when the post-war generation noticed that the new battlefield was on the streets and highways and the car crash casualty list was alarming.
In Sweden, an academic look at auto fatalities and injuries produced the first estimate – which remains pretty much the standard one today – that seat belts can reduce automobile fatalities and serious injuries by roughly half.
Suddenly there was public demand, which the car-makers were happy to satisfy, selling the seatbelt as expensive options.
By 1959 Volvo was offering as standard equipment, a prototype for today’s one click 3 point seat belt. It was close to 20 years before Detroit (Ford and Chrysler) caught up.
You couldn’t sell cars, the American auto industry believed, with safety.
Although the political history of seatbelts says something entirely different. The 1968 law that forced manufacturers to put 3-point safety belts for all 4 forward-facing seats was grassroots legislation. Congress acted only after 23 state legislatures had mandated seat belts for 4 passengers for all cars.
When the ante was upped, from gotta have seatbelts in the car to gotta use the seatbelts in the car there was another prairie fire of state legislatures in action. NY State went first in 1984 and 4 years later 34 states were with the click it or ticket program. Today 48 states require seatbelt use. In Michigan they studied the first 10 years of required seat belt use and concluded it have saved 650 lives.
But, as I said, seatbelts’ life-saving qualities were known by the mid 1950s…why did the American auto industry fight being asked, and worse being ordered, to put 1 or 2 or 4 or finally 5 seat belts into their cars. An interesting moral question for sure, but more practically, the industry objected because seat belts added costs to their cars.
A more interesting practical question is how did the American auto industry manage to slow the wheels of auto safety by 30 years or more?
And a more pertinent question is, are we seeing a re-run of this safety-last attitude when it comes to putting automatic emergency braking and associated safety devices into all cars as standard equipment?
Joan Claybrook is the president emeritus of Public Citizen. Founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, Public Citizen is a nonprofit public interest advocacy organization that seeks to improve the health and safety of the public, protect civil rights and liberties, insure clean and safe energy sources, increase public availability of information and citizen participation in government decision-making, and strengthen campaign finance reform as well as accountability and fairness in the marketplace.
Claybrook has testified frequently before congressional committees. She regularly speaks to private groups and educational institutions regarding public interest issues. Current issues Claybrook is working on include product liability, campaign finance reform, health care reform, auto and highway safety, trade and regulatory policies.
Prior to becoming president of Public Citizen in 1982, Claybrook was an administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1977 to 1981. She was founder and director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, a congressional lobbying group from 1973 to 1977.