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This article explores the attempts in the United States in the 1970s to implement a new paradigm for automobile safety—crashworthiness, the idea that automobile passengers should be protected in the event of a crash. A large number of strategies were proposed, including air bags, seatbelt modifications, mandatory belt-use laws, and ignition interlocks. Many of these did not initially come to fruition, but they did give the automobile safety community a chance to experiment with different ways of distributing responsibilities between automobile occupants, automobile manufacturers, and, to a lesser extent, government agencies. These experiments helped pave the way for the successful implementation of a number of new strategies in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

As Peter Norton explains in his “Four Paradigms” piece in this issue, in the first half of the twentieth century (his paradigms 1 and 2), nearly everyone in the United States approached automobile safety in a very simple way: if people don’t hit each other, nobody will get hurt. By the 1960s, however, a number of safety advocates—including government officials, insurance executives, and auto safety interest-group leaders—were convinced that this conception of auto safety had failed. Auto safety efforts had focused on the “Three Es” for several decades: Engineering roads to limit the possibility of collisions and equipping vehicles with reliable brakes and steering; Educating drivers and pedestrians on how to avoid collisions; and developing and Enforcing rules of the road to compel drivers to carry out their responsibilities.1 In spite of these efforts, traffic fatalities in the United [End Page 440] States continued to rise, breaking the mark of 50,000 lives lost per year for the first time in 1966.2 A number of outspoken critics like researcher Hugh DeHaven, public health expert Dr. William Haddon Jr., and lawyer Ralph Nader argued that trying to get drivers and pedestrians to behave appropriately simply was not sufficient. They pointed to a significant amount of research done in the 1940s and ‘50s that demonstrated how it was possible to design a vehicle that could be safe to crash, and they demanded that vehicles be redesigned to be “crashworthy.”3 These critics believed that if people remained inside the vehicle and crash forces were distributed across their bodies, their chances of surviving violent crashes would greatly increase.

After a series of high-profile Senate hearings in 1965 and 1966, at which the benefits of crashworthiness were justified with scientific evidence and the U.S. automobile industry’s commitment to safety was deeply questioned, the U.S. Congress decided that the auto industry–led “grassroots” movement of the previous decades that Stève Bernardin describes in this issue was not sufficient and set in motion a framework for a top-down approach.4 In 1966 the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to approve the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which, among other things, established the National Highway Safety Board (NHSB). The NHSB, which by the end of 1970 would be reformed into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was charged with establishing regulations to ensure that automobile manufacturers and suppliers redesigned their vehicles so they would be safer to crash.5

This U.S. government mandate led to a series of attempts in the 1970s to translate the third paradigm of automobile safety that Peter Norton describes—crashworthiness—into concrete and effective measures.6 This [End Page 441] article will explore the attempts by automobile safety advocates to redesign the relationship between people and machines to address the problem of automobile injuries and fatalities. These efforts can provide an extended case study of Bruno Latour’s notion that when our attempts to delegate tasks to humans fail, we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) delegate the tasks to nonhumans. As Latour notes in his article “Where Are the Missing Masses?” one of the reasons our society does not descend into chaos is because artifacts help ensure that humans behave appropriately or compensate for incompetent or immoral humans.7 In the development of new sociotechnical systems, we sometimes delegate responsibilities to artifacts because they are more reliable than human beings.

The idea of delegating responsibilities to automotive technologies was intimately interwoven into the crashworthiness ideal. During the 1970s, government regulators, insurance company executives, and many safety advocates focused on “designing the driver out of the problem” by developing technologies that would ensure safety regardless of the actions of drivers and passengers. They proposed an array of technologies that they thought could compensate for or ultimately replace unreliable drivers. The hope was that with the power of a regulatory agency, new designs that were developed could be mandated and crashworthy cars would be ensured.

But these advocates discovered that creating a new sociotechnical system of automobile safety by delegating responsibilities to a technology was no simple task. Manufacturers pushed back because they recognized that the delegation did not end with the artifact itself; they could be held liable for the technologies they designed, built, and sold. And technology users, the automobile drivers and passengers, resisted some technologies if they proved too irritating. Delegation did not end up being the easy technological fix that many had hoped for. Instead, the attempts to promote crash-worthy automobiles in the 1970s resulted in a series of proposals, debates about their efficacy and wisdom, some experimentation with devices on the road, and very few regulations that managed to stay on the books for any length of time.

But the difficulty of reconfiguring automotive technology to promote crashworthiness did spark a period of intense creativity in automobile safety. This creative period helped produce devices and strategies that, if not an immediate success, became useful as other parts of the sociotechnical system they were being inserted into changed. The experimentation also helped crashworthiness advocates more precisely determine how to build technologies that could compel safe behavior without being irritating. [End Page 442]

The Failure of Both Seat Belts and Air Bags

The fundamental principle behind the crashworthiness paradigm was that it was not the first collision—the collision between cars, walls, and trees—that was dangerous. It was the second collision—the impact of the automobile occupants with the interior of the car or the road—that caused direct injury to human beings.8 The goal of crashworthiness advocates, therefore, was to find ways to limit the impact on humans inside the vehicle. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the one technique that most experts agreed could provide this type of protection was the safety belt.

The safety belt, the first “automotive restraint,” kept people firmly secured inside the cabin so that they were much less likely to hit the interior or fly out the windows. Officials at the NHSB were so convinced of the efficacy of safety belts that in their first slate of regulations, they required that all automobiles sold in the United States be equipped with front seat lap and shoulder belts and rear seat lap belts beginning 1 January 1968.9 The safety belt approach, however, was quickly deemed a failure. Belts are only effective when they are properly buckled, and at the time the American public did not seem interested in using them. As Secretary of Transportation John Volpe argued in 1971:

Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars for public relations, and I might say many public service announcements by the media, usage of lap belts has never been higher than 40 percent in certain limited parts of the country, more likely in the range of 25 percent on a nationwide basis.10

When these “public relations” efforts were suspended in the 1970s, the percentage of seat belt users dropped below 15 percent in the United States.11

The problem with the seat belt approach to crashworthiness, NHSB officials argued, was similar to trying to get people to avoid collisions: it relied on millions of drivers and passengers to make the decision multiple times a day to properly fasten their seat belt.12 The solution, NHSB officials contended, was to eliminate the need to rely on automobile users to behave safely. They proposed to do this through the mandatory installation of air [End Page 443] bags, a system of cushions that would inflate in the event of a collision and automatically protect those inside the vehicle. On 2 July 1969 they took the first major step toward realizing this goal by making a formal announcement in the Federal Register that they were considering mandating a new type of restraint.13 They thought that if they passed a regulation, automakers would be forced to install them and safety would be assured.

Federal rules, however, prohibited the NHSB from mandating a specific technology. Instead the NHSB had to shape its regulations around “design criteria,” that is, the regulator could mandate testable properties, but could not require specific technologies. The NHSB therefore required what it termed “passive restraints,” that is, technologies that would restrain a passive user. Seat belts were deemed “active restraints” because they worked only if passengers took active steps to employ them. At the time the air bag was the only widely discussed technology that met the “passive restraint” criteria.14 It was embraced by the NHSB and later NHTSA as a way to protect those drivers and passengers who would not take steps to protect themselves.

Automakers responded by continuing their research into air bag technology, but for the most part they did not embrace this overall strategy.15 They resisted the air bag mandate for at least three reasons. First, they did not like being forced to increase the cost of their product by a significant amount. Estimates in 1977 were that an air bag would add $200, or up to 6 percent to the price of a new car.16 Second, they maintained that air bag technology was in its infancy and they were seriously concerned that air bags would not be able to perform the complex task being required of them.17 But third, and perhaps most importantly, the thought of being legally responsible for supplying such restraints terrified many automakers and their lawyers.

Prior to the late 1960s, automakers were almost never held liable for the tens of thousands of people who died in their products every year. Fatalities on the road were almost always blamed on the mistakes of drivers. The “safety first” and “control” paradigms that Peter Norton describes insulated the industry from a large number of legal issues. Occasionally, a manufacturer [End Page 444] was sued for damages for an injury or death when there was a catastrophic technical failure, like the collapse of a wheel, but often even these cases were dismissed as “maintenance” issues rather than “manufacturer” issues.18 The NHSB vision of air bags would change that distribution of responsibility. With air bags, automakers were being assigned the responsibility to protect the occupants in every crash. Each of the 45,000-plus annual deaths on the road could be at least partially blamed on a failure of automotive design to provide adequate protection. Companies feared that this would open them up to a legal liability they had never been burdened with before. The desire to avoid this liability was compounded by the fact that once air bags were implemented, the NHSB would no longer mandate the installation of seat belts, nor would it hold drivers and passengers responsible for wearing them.19

Automakers responded by trying as many approaches as possible to defeat air bags. They contended that the technology was not mature enough, deconstructed the tests being used to illustrate the effectiveness of air bags, complained about the lack of a standard dummy to evaluate the regulations, and ultimately filed a number of lawsuits to prevent the regulations from going into effect.20 But they also believed that an entirely negative approach might not work. To counteract NHSB/NHTSA’s focus on the air bag, automakers, seat belt manufacturers, and a handful of individual inventors developed an array of alternative restraint strategies that they argued would be either more feasible than air bags, more effective, or both.

The automakers contended that there were other technologies and strategies that could solve the problem of automotive restraint. Beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, automobile manufacturers, industry suppliers, and lone inventors argued that new belt systems, mandatory belt-use laws, ignition interlocks, and automatic seat belts, among other measures, would further the cause of automotive restraint and should be allowed to satisfy government restraint regulations. The industry maintained that air bag promoters needed to expand their vision and consider a variety of possible alternatives in order to arrive at the best solution.

Exploring Alternative Technologies

One of the responses was to find an alternative “passive restraint” technology. For instance, Accles Britax, a British company, developed a restraint device that consisted of large padded bumpers that automatically pressed [End Page 445] against the occupant’s chest once they shut the door.21 A slightly more popular approach was to use what were termed “net restraints” or “blanket restraints.” The idea was to design a net that would deploy once crash sensors registered a collision either by dropping down between the occupants and the dashboard to keep them away from hard objects or by springing toward the occupants and pinning them against the seats.22 One engineer argued that he had developed the ideal restraint—a system that tilted the car’s seats backward during a collision so that occupants would accelerate into their padded seat rather than into the dash or out the window.23

Most of these ideas generated little interest because they were viewed either as ungainly or even more complicated than an air bag system. The “passive interior” or “friendly interior” approach did, however, advance beyond the design exercise stage. The basic idea behind the passive interior was either to provide enough padding so that the occupants could slam into the dashboard during a crash and not be too badly affected by it, or to position occupants such that their vital organs did not receive the bulk of the crash energy. In most designs, this involved padding that was not only thick but also jutted out from the dashboard to within only a few inches of the occupants.

General Motors implemented this idea more than any other company and concentrated on occupant positioning rather than padding. Its engineers found that if seats were contoured so that the occupants were practically lying down, most of the force of a frontal crash would be concentrated on the occupant’s legs, which would keep his or her head and internal organs safer—thereby meeting the federal regulations that were more focused on death than breaking limbs. During the early 1980s, the company actually claimed to have succeeded in developing two automobiles—the Pontiac Fiero and the Chevrolet Corvette—that could meet the passive-restraint standard at the time without belts, bags, or other devices.24

Developing New Belt Systems of Restraint

For the most part, however, the manufacturers promoted strategies that relied on seat belts as the direct mechanism of restraint. They found [End Page 446] belt-based strategies especially appealing in part because they were often less costly, but also because belt systems involved a distribution of responsibilities that made carmakers much more comfortable. They were willing to take responsibility for ensuring strong and effective belts because they had a considerable amount of experience with and confidence in the technology. As J. C. Eckhold, automotive safety director at Ford Motor Company, argued in a letter to the NHSB in 1970: “We submit that the problems involved in designing and producing a belt system that will assure high if not virtually universal usage of lap and shoulder belt systems are far less difficult to solve than those inherent in the so-called ‘passive system’ [i.e., air bags].”25 The manufacturers also preferred to accept the liability associated with seat belts rather than allow the American legal system to determine what standards they should be held to in terms of air bag design. In 1977 retired GM president Ed Cole argued that “There has been litigation on almost every phase of the automobile, and seat belts and shoulder belts are no exception. But I do feel that when you have a passive system the responsibility lies more with the manufacturer and the service station that takes care of the system.”26

Because they were much more at ease with the technical and liability aspects of belts than air bags, the automakers even agreed to take on a series of responsibilities to ensure that the public used their belts. They offered to build more comfortable belts, cars that would not start if the belts were not being used properly, and belt systems that automatically strapped in occupants. Automakers were interested in these belt-use strategies despite the fact that they would have to take on new responsibilities, and perhaps alienate some customers who would be annoyed by the devices, because unlike the air bag proposal, a motorist who did not wear his or her seat belt was still negligent. The manufacturers agreed to put coercive mechanisms in place, but only because they had experience with belts and it would not be the automaker’s fault if a reckless owner bypassed or ignored these techniques.

The distribution of responsibilities between the occupant and the vehicle manufacturer that these strategies entailed was the subject of many debates and in the end was the primary reason why most air bag supporters rejected these proposals. Much of the effort by both groups was focused on better understanding the character of American drivers, or at least in arguing that they understood American drivers better than those on the other side of the passive-restraint argument. Would American drivers buckle their belts if they were made more comfortable? Would they tolerate [End Page 447] being “forced” to buckle their belts? Would they buy used cars instead of new cars to avoid annoying new restraint technologies?

Air bag advocates—including government officials, insurance companies, and leaders of safety organizations like the National Safety Council—found the alternative strategies offered by the automakers unacceptable regardless of how they attempted to compel the public to behave appropriately because they believed there would always be individuals who would find ways to circumvent these strategies. Since they deemed the public unreliable and occasionally careless, they contended that a feasible occupant restraint strategy had to eliminate the need for the public to behave in any predetermined manner—whether this meant buckling a belt or not interfering with an automatic system. Instead, they argued, complete responsibility for restraint had to be allocated to the vehicle. The air bag was the only technology they could envision that would successfully fulfill this requirement. Implementing a variety of strategies in the 1970s allowed both sides of the debate to see how the driving public would respond.

Making Belts Comfortable and Convenient

Most of the alternative strategies suggested by the automakers and others were based on the presumption that more could be done to increase belt use. A number of physicians and engineers argued that the government had done a poor job of educating the user and suggested more widespread campaigns that drew on the findings of recent psychological research.27 But some engineers at the automakers and suppliers had been experimenting with other technologies and contended that there were a number of techniques other than education that could be used to get Americans to accept the responsibility of using their seat belts. Two general approaches were advocated: those that made belts more attractive to automobile occupants and those that compelled/persuaded/forced the user to fasten the belt by exacting a penalty if he or she resisted buckling up.

The first strategy the automakers advanced was based on the presumption that the American public would agree to use seat belts if they were simply more comfortable and convenient. The seat belts of the late 1960s were quite different from those installed in vehicles today. Many of them had four separate straps—two that connected across the lap and two that connected across the chest. After these belts were fastened, they then had to be adjusted so they wrapped snugly around the body. Once they were fastened, the movement of the wearer was severely limited. If a person [End Page 448] wearing a seat belt properly wanted to lean forward to adjust the radio, he or she would need to first loosen the shoulder belt and then, after sitting straight again, retighten it. Many seat belt suppliers and automobile manufacturers argued that if belts were made less cumbersome and did not restrict movement so severely, automobile occupants would be much more inclined to wear them.28

Manufacturers suggested several technologies to alleviate these problems. The two most important were the “inertia reel” and the combination lap/shoulder belt. Inertia reel devices were developed by automotive engineers at many of the car companies in the late 1960s to allow the belt wearer freedom of movement and to relieve users from having to adjust the belt every time they got in the car. Rather than anchor the belt to a fixed point, the inertia reel acted as a spring-loaded spool under normal conditions, which allowed the belt to extend and retract as the user moved back and forth. If the vehicle decelerated quickly, however, a pendulum would lock the belt in place and restrain the user away from the dashboard, window, and steering wheel. The combination lap/shoulder belt was designed to make the process of buckling the “belts” much easier. The goal was to combine the act of buckling both the shoulder belt and the lap belt into a single motion—thereby saving time and increasing the chances that the full complement of belts were used. Many who resisted the push for air bags argued that if manufacturers added the installation of comfortable and convenient seat belts to their list of responsibilities (and cost sheets), drivers and passengers would be much more likely to accept their duty to buckle up.

Despite their focus on air bags, officials at the NHSB and NHTSA were proponents of these seat belt technology changes. They acknowledged that it was not possible to tack air bags onto models that were already fully designed, but they thought that lap/shoulder belts with inertia reels could be. Because they believed that the devices could lead to a marginal increase in belt use, they made provision of both devices mandatory in the early 1970s.29 They could not, however, envision new belt technology as being able to change the practices of enough people to solve the problem of restraint. Therefore, they viewed the devices as a stopgap measure that would help increase safety until the ultimate solution—the air bag—was ready.

The Push to Make Belt Use Mandatory

Convincing the public to wear seat belts by making them easier to use was not the only method automakers suggested. They also advocated strategies [End Page 449] that compelled motorists to accept their responsibility by making it difficult not to use seat belts. The first of these strategies relied on a legal technique. Manufacturers argued that governments should pass laws requiring all motorists to use their seat belt and then make it the responsibility of police to enforce the law. They contended that such a system would compel drivers and passengers to carry out their assigned task of using their seat belts through respect for the law and/or fear of punishment.

William Haddon Jr., the NHSB’s first director, initially considered the passage of such legislation politically impossible. The automobile was one of the quintessential symbols of American freedom. To force people to buckle up seemed an oppressive infringement on that freedom to many. But by the early 1970s a number of NHTSA officials grew sympathetic to this idea.30 They worked with the rest of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to offer financial incentives to states if they issued mandatory seat belt use laws and safety seat laws for infants, and financial disincentives (the revoking of federal road-building monies) to states if they did not establish motorcycle helmet laws.31 These efforts yielded several state helmet laws and safety seat laws, yet only Puerto Rico took the DOT up on its incentives to establish belt-use laws.32

Soon after this initiative began, Dr. Haddon’s fears of political resistance to mandatory belt use laws became a reality. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, in large part motivated by the idea that the decision to wear or not wear a seat belt was an individual liberty, contended that a federal government agency should not be allowed to interfere in state affairs in this manner. In 1974 the U.S. Congress prohibited the DOT from giving incentive monies to states, and in 1976 it prohibited the DOT from withholding highway safety funds from states that did not have helmet laws.33 The elimination of financial incentives curtailed much of the interest state legislatures had in passing the laws at the time, and many began to rescind their helmet laws. These actions by Congress and the states convinced policymakers at NHTSA that it could not convince governments to take on the responsibility to pass and enforce laws mandating seat belt use. [End Page 450]

Designing Devices to Compel Seat Belt Use

The second strategy automakers proposed to make it difficult for drivers not to buckle up relied on linking the existing belt systems with new devices. They argued that a seat belt strategy could succeed if it required automobiles to be equipped with a system of lights and buzzers that went off if the driver had not fastened his or her belt. They contended that if manufacturers designed vehicles that exacted a small punishment from unbuckled passengers, those drivers would be more likely to buckle up.

NHTSA was again open to the idea. In 1971 it worked with automakers to develop a rule that required a “Fasten Seat Belts” sign to light up and a signal to sound for at least one minute if a passenger was not buckled properly.34 The technology was installed in many 1972 U.S. passenger vehicles. But studies conducted soon after these vehicles hit the road showed that the systems resulted in little or no change in seat belt use when compared to warning-free belt systems. Even with these systems, only about 19 percent of drivers used lap belts and a mere 8 percent used lap and shoulder belts.35 Many surmised that the devices were either being ignored or defeated by nearly all automobile owners.36 The failure of this technology to compel automobile occupants to behave according to the strategy frustrated those at NHTSA, the insurance companies, and other safety organizations, further convincing them that passive restraints were the solution to automotive restraint.

The automobile manufacturers, however, did not give up on the idea that putting coercive technologies in their automobiles could drastically increase seat belt use. In the early 1970s, several seat belt corporations and the Ford Motor Company began suggesting that NHTSA focus on electronic systems that would force drivers to use their seat belts. They proposed wiring their automobiles such that the ignition could not be turned on if the belts were not properly buckled. Ford executives argued that a technology could be designed and installed in individual cars that would force the public to carry out their responsibilities—a technology that came to be called the “ignition interlock.”

Most people at NHTSA were initially skeptical of the idea because they feared the public would be annoyed with or outraged by the technology and reject it. Secretary of Transportation John Volpe explicitly argued in 1971 that NHTSA did not want to promote or require “forced action systems [End Page 451] like ignition interlocks.”37 Consumer advocate and air bag promoter Ralph Nader thought the idea was a mistake from very early on.38 General Motors executives initially resisted the idea and went so far as to warn that there could be a backlash against not just interlocks but seat belts in general. One of them argued in 1972: “We believe that use of the starter interlock should be avoided because of the high risk of customer reaction against the use of belt restraints.”39 Automakers wanted automobile occupants to use their belts, but they preferred techniques to achieve this that did not alienate their customers.

Implementing Interlocks

Despite these reservations, on 24 February 1972 NHTSA issued an interim rule-making allowing automobile manufacturers to install ignition interlocks beginning with 1974 models if they did not want to install passive restraints.40 It is likely that a meeting on 27 April 1971 with Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca convinced President Richard Nixon to pressure NHTSA to allow ignition interlocks to meet its occupant restraint rule.41 Regardless of the origins of the rule-making, however, ignition interlocks would provide the auto safety community with yet another experiment by which to judge the types of user/technology relationships the public would accept.

In its rule-making, NHTSA attempted to strike a difficult balance between ensuring that the interlocks would force front seat occupants to wear their seat belts and yet not cause unnecessary inconvenience. To prevent people from simply buckling their belts behind their backs, NHTSA mandated the installation of a logic circuit. The circuit would activate the ignition only if an occupant went through a specific set of actions: [End Page 452]

  1. 1. Sat down, activating a seat sensor;

  2. 2. Pulled the belt out and around their body, activating a sensor that could determine whether enough of the belt spooled out to actually wrap around a person;

  3. 3. Buckled the belt, activating a third sensor; and finally

  4. 4. Turned the ignition key, which would activate the ignition if all the steps were followed.42

NHTSA realized that such a system could cause large inconveniences. For example, if a vehicle stalled the occupants would have to unbuckle their belts, get out of the car, sit back down in the seat to actuate the seat sensor, rebuckle the belt, and then finally turn the ignition back on. And every time a mechanic wanted to test a car, he or she would have to get in and buckle up before it could be turned on. NHTSA therefore included the provision that the engine should be able to restart within three minutes of shutoff without interference by the interlock system and there should be a button under the hood that would allow a mechanic to turn the vehicle on a single time without having to go through the usual steps. The requirements issued by NHTSA on ignition interlocks were devised in an effort to make the devices tamper-proof, with a few concessions to make them somewhat more convenient for users.

These efforts were not successful, however. Public backlash against the devices began as soon as the first 1974 models were sold in late 1973. Over 150 people wrote to NHTSA immediately to complain about the devices.43 Others wrote editorials or complained to their members of Congress and the automobile manufacturers.

This public discontent was evident in two common complaints. First, some people were outraged that the government would “require” a technology that disciplined individual actions.44 A small group of citizens since the late 1960s had publicly expressed resentment over the fact that the government had imposed changes to automobiles. For instance, in 1970 an automotive journalist argued:

Speaking as a citizen it seems to us that such control as we accept from the safety reformers dispels any illusion we might have had that we are a free people. In the name of saving us, the bureaucrats are enslaving us. … The difficulty is in finding someone to speak for us. What we really need is a “Ralph Nader” for those oppressed by safety reformers.45 [End Page 453]

The cost and annoyance of the ignition interlocks gave additional fodder to the “Big Brother” argument lodged by a number of citizens.

Second, others complained that even when they wore their belts, the systems were terribly inconvenient. Some new car owners found that setting groceries in the passenger seat would trigger the seat sensor and render their vehicle inoperable if they did not “buckle up their dinner.” A Ford study found that 1 percent of the systems on the road failed to allow the car to be turned on even when an occupant took the appropriate steps.46 Many owners were outraged both that they were being disciplined and that the technology occasionally punished them even when they were carrying out their responsibilities.

But the public discontent was not simply limited to words. Many citizens took steps to remove the problem as they saw it. This response eliminated the annoyance, and the effectiveness, of the technology. Several surveys found that by May 1974, over 40 percent of drivers of ignition interlock–equipped cars had discovered ways to disable the devices so that they could drive without wearing seat belts.47 The editors of automotive magazines were sympathetic to the anti-interlock sentiment and not only spoke out against the devices but gave tips on how owners could disconnect the system themselves. They informed their readers that although it was illegal for a dealer to disable the device before the car was sold, the dealer could disconnect it anytime afterward.48

One safety advocate even claimed he had proof that the auto manufacturers were afraid of alienating good customers, so they designed the devices such that a “determined motorist [could] disconnect them without goofing up his ignition system.”49 The owner’s manual for the 1975 Oldsmobile Cutlass offers support for this claim. The only picture included in the section on how to “use” the interlock is a schematic that points to the location of the “belt interlock override button” (using the biggest text on the page) under the hood, which allowed the vehicle to be turned on without fastening the seat belts.50

Many at NHTSA believed that this public resistance made the interlock strategy fatally flawed. They were not satisfied with the 60 percent level of seat belt use it had achieved and were convinced that use levels would only decrease as more people figured out how to disable the systems.51 But before [End Page 454] NHTSA could replace the interlock rule with a more effective regulation, the U.S. Congress took matters into its own hands. With both the public and many members of Congress outraged, Louis Wyman of New Hampshire, along with forty-six other representatives, sponsored a bill to outlaw mandatory ignition interlocks. Wyman argued that the interlocks were “one of the most offensive invasions of the personal right of privacy to be dictated by the federal bureaucracy in recent years.”52 Many in Congress agreed with him, and on 27 October 1974, after passing both houses, President Gerald Ford signed a law that prohibited future NHTSA motor vehicle safety standards from requiring or permitting the use of interlocks or other systems that forced users to wear seat belts. The law also limited seat belt non-use warning devices to eight seconds to curb their annoyance.

By the end of the 1970s, all these attempts to compel or force motorists to buckle their seat belts were seen as hopeless by those at NHTSA as well as by many other air bag enthusiasts. Efforts to enact seat belt use laws in the states had failed. Seat belt warning lights and ignition interlocks seemed to increase belt use for a short period of time, but users ultimately found ways to avoid carrying out the responsibilities these technologies were designed to enforce. Any hopes that NHTSA officials had of redesigning these techniques and devices to prevent user backlash were abandoned once Congress placed strict limitations on their efforts. These disappointments further confirmed in the minds of many that technologies—whether devices or social technologies like laws—designed to force the public to perform specific tasks were likely to fail, especially if the means were seen as especially annoying. NHTSA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, insurance companies, and others reaffirmed that a true “passive” restraint was needed.

Making Seat Belts Passive

The automakers did push for one strategy that NHTSA and the rest of the auto safety community agreed was a passive restraint—the passive seat belt system. The idea was to build a mechanism inside the car that would automatically strap occupants in with belts when they sat down.53 Volkswagen, Triumph, and Takata Kojyo, a Japanese seat belt manufacturer, did much of the early research and development of this idea. Some of these systems used a bar mounted between the seats to raise and lower seat belts when passengers got out and in; others installed tracks in the doors so that the upper seat belt anchor could race across to strap people in once they sat down; and one system even used two curved steel members mounted on the seat that encircled the occupant, fastened the seat belt, and then slid [End Page 455] back into the back of the chair. Proponents of such belt systems argued that the technology could protect in all types of crashes, just like a normal belt system, and would be accepted by the public because they eliminated the “troublesome act” of buckling up.

While it held that the air bag was the ideal technology to ensure proper restraint in vehicles, in 1970 the NHSB acknowledged that “self-fastening belt systems” had the potential to meet its requirements, and in 1971 NHTSA began issuing regulations that gave broad outlines on how such systems should be designed.54 Included in these mandates was the stipulation that the belt had to be equipped with an emergency disconnect so that occupants could get out of the vehicle quickly after a collision. Once the pushback against ignition interlocks occurred, however, many were concerned users would also circumvent passive belt systems. In 1977 Ralph Nader argued before a Senate subcommittee that in some cases automatic belts might be even less effective than manual belts:

[T]he problem with the passive belt that hasn’t been brought out is that it is likely to lead to a backlash like the interlock. If it doesn’t lead to a backlash it will have to be made easily disconnected. So a lot of people will just disconnect the passive belt. Where are you then? You are with nothing. No seat belt. No shoulder harness. No passive belt. Nothing. … That is why the automatic passive air bag system emerges with prominence.55

Safety advocates and those at NHTSA argued that passive belts were limited by the fact that they could be as annoying as and perhaps even more annoying than regular belts. They asked automakers to make the systems as convenient, comfortable, and unobtrusive as possible, but still believed that air bags were a better solution because they would not aggravate and therefore not compel automobile owners to disable them.

By the late 1970s, Volkswagen, Chevrolet, and Toyota were selling passive-belt–equipped vehicles to the general public in the United States.56 In the mid-1980s, however, NHTSA would further cement its dedication to air bag technology over passive seat belts.57 When it looked as if few manufacturers would comply with the passive-restraint rule using air bags, NHTSA put an air bag incentive into its regulations. It required vehicles equipped with passive belts to be fully passive for both driver and passenger but allowed a car equipped with only a driver-side air bag to meet the [End Page 456] rule for an interim period. Its basic argument was that the use of passive belts for both driver and passenger would not be high enough to be more beneficial than a single air bag for the driver. NHTSA officials predicted that passive seat belts would have to achieve 60 percent usage rates to equal the effectiveness of a single air bag, and they doubted that such rates would be achievable even with automatic belts.58 Despite the widespread implementation of passive seat belts, many auto safety advocates at NHTSA, the insurance companies, and other safety organizations still saw the air bag as the ideal restraint because it did not annoy car owners to the point that they would be tempted to disconnect the safety device.


Despite the wide variety of strategies promoted, developed, and tested on the road, the automobile safety community was not able to come to an agreement in the 1970s as to how to best restrain vehicle occupants. The technologies that satisfied NHTSA frightened the automakers. And the technologies counterproposed by the manufacturers frequently annoyed automobile occupants.

In large part because of the focus put on alternative technologies as well as court cases, changes of presidential administrations, and public lobbying, the air bag was stalled throughout the 1970s.59 Yet NHTSA never gave up the fight, and ultimately the idea of an air bag regulation regained traction in the mid-1980s. The dream of a fully passive device was difficult to dispel. By the late 1990s, some twenty years later, NHTSA officials finally got their wish. Air bags are now mandatory equipment on all automobiles sold in the United States.60

But the 1970s proved to be more than simply a frustrating waste of time. The auto safety community learned a great deal from the experiments of that decade. Perhaps most importantly, its members realized that designing cars which disciplined drivers could lead to a great deal of animosity. Popular protests could have an important effect, especially when some of the nation’s most powerful drivers—members of Congress—became annoyed. Ultimately, this caused government regulators to shift their approach. They did not abandon the ideal of crashworthiness, but they did step back from the idea of circumventing or disciplining the automobile occupant. They sought approaches that made people comfortable with [End Page 457] crashworthiness measures. In many ways this shift helped usher in what Norton refers to as the fourth paradigm of auto safety—responsibility. Government officials wanted cars to be safer to crash, but they also asked the driving public to take an active role in the process. This gradual shift in paradigms was possible in large part because the decade of creativity inspired by dread led to the development and testing of a number of technologies and strategies, which were easier to accept as the paradigm shifted.

Perhaps most important were the repeated attempts to try to make seat belts work. The discussions of mandatory seat belt use laws in the 1970s did not yield fruit immediately, but they did spark discussions in state legislatures that eventually got laws passed. In 1984 a mandatory use law went into effect in New York State and was followed by several new states each year over the following decade.61 Today every U.S. state except for New Hampshire requires seat belt use by at least the front seat passengers, and many states have stringent rules about child safety seats.62 This change would not have been possible, however, if seat belts had remained as annoying as they were when they were first invented. Subtle changes, including some that were eventually turned into regulations like inertia reel belts and belts that could be properly fastened with one hand, made belts significantly more comfortable and easy to use. The laws, more comfortable belts, and a dedicated program of education to convince the people to accept new responsibilities would have a major influence on the American public’s marked shift toward the acceptance of belts in the 1980s. In the United States today, belt use is over 85 percent thanks to these changes.63

The idea of an air bag has even changed markedly. The increase in seat belt use made a number of organizations more comfortable envisioning air bags as a complement to, rather than a replacement of, belts. In the 1990s the government gradually shifted from designating air bags as “passive restraints” and now almost always refers to them as “supplemental restraints” because they are to be used with seat belts.

Even some of the more intrusive technologies of the 1970s have found acceptance today. It would still be very difficult politically to install ignition interlocks in everyone’s car, but society is comfortable with the idea of installing them for those charged with driving under the influence (DUI). There is a view that if you neglect a responsibility that puts others in grave danger, the government has every right to discipline you. Across the United States there has been a proliferation of state laws that require those charged with DUI to install a system wherein they must blow into a straw to demonstrate that they have a low enough blood alcohol content to operate a vehicle safely before the ignition can be switched on. These systems are direct descendants of the ones developed in the early 1970s. [End Page 458]

The attempts at regulating crashworthiness did not initially achieve the goals the NHSB/NHTSA started with in the 1970s. But the threat of regulation proved to be perhaps as transformative as regulations themselves. It led to a significant amount of creativity and broad thinking that helped spark a wide array of useful strategies to advance automobile safety. These experiments not only led to the development of safety devices but also helped the automobile safety community to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how to balance the distribution of responsibilities among regulations, drivers, their vehicles, and the manufacturers of those vehicles. Recognition of the failures of one approach can often form the foundation of a subsequent one.

In the 1970s, two decades before Bruno Latour explained how technologies help maintain the social order, many in the automobile safety community were enchanted with the idea that they could delegate responsibilities to artifacts rather than people. They believed that where people were weak, technology could be strong. Their effort to use technologies to restore social order and ensure public safety, however, was not a simple process. Allocating new responsibilities to automobiles had ripple effects that extended to drivers, passengers, automakers, the court system, and even the U.S. Congress. Crashworthiness advocates found that it was possible to increase safety by redesigning automotive technologies, but it required very careful consideration of the rest of the sociotechnical system that makes up and governs automobile travel.

Jameson M. Wetmore

Jameson M. Wetmore is associate professor at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University. He is co-director of ASU’s Center for Engagement and Training in Science and Society and is co-editor, with Deborah Johnson, of Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (2009).


Archival and Oral Sources

National Archives, College Park, MD
U.S. Department of Transportation Docket Archive, Washington, DC
Terry, Tom, Director, General Motors Safety Center. Telephone interview with the author, 22 February 2001

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1. See Stève Bernardin’s article in this issue for further discussion of the “Three Es.”

4. These hearings, which came to be known as “The Ribicoff Hearings,” can be found recorded in U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Government Operations, Traffic Safety. Perhaps the major reason why trust in the auto industry’s commitment to safety was undermined was because it became public that General Motors had hired private investigators to investigate crashworthiness advocate Ralph Nader’s background. Many believed that the company’s intent was to blackmail the young lawyer. For a more detailed history of GM’s investigation of Ralph Nader and the way it became public, see Thomas Whiteside, The Investigation of Ralph Nader; Robert F. Buckhorn, Nader, 1–34. See also Jameson M. Wetmore, “Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities.”

5. When officials at the NHSB were thinking about making vehicles safe to crash in the 1960s, by and large they meant that the vehicles would be safe for automobile occupants to crash. Little thought was given at the time to pedestrians, bicyclists, and other road users.

6. A handful of scholars have examined this period of auto safety. Most notably, John D. Graham used the subject to illustrate how the distribution of power operates in American government, and Jerry L. Mashaw and David L. Harfst used it to study the effect of regulatory and legal culture on the courses of action that government agencies take: Graham, Auto Safety; Mashaw and Harfst, The Struggle for Auto Safety.

9. U.S. Department of Transportation, “Initial Federal Motor Vehicle Standards.” When this standard was implemented, all new cars sold in the United States were already equipped with safety belts. That milestone was achieved on 1 January 1964 in large part as an automaker response to seat belt mandates in a handful of states. See Frank Ernest Hill, The Automobile. The NHSB standard ensured rear seat belts and an upgrade to shoulder belts for the front seats.

14. By the mid-1970s, automakers had developed a number of technologies they hoped would meet the NHSB “passive restraint” regulation, which will be discussed in the next few sections—most notably, the automatic seat belt system.

15. The one exception to this rule was Ed Cole, president of General Motors from 1967 to 1974. Cole was committed to air bags, and General Motors led in the development of the technology in the early 1970s. But these efforts significantly decreased when Cole’s tenure as president ended.

17. Looking back on the situation with today’s knowledge, their safety concerns were certainly justified. See Wetmore, “Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities.”

19. In its final published rule in 1970, NHSB noted that “under the standard as adopted manufacturers will be free to supply seat belts as optional or standard equipment, but may not use them to satisfy the requirements of the standard.” NHSB, “Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,” 16928.

22. J. T. Ligon, Vice President of Engineering, Hamill Manufacturing Company of Firestone Tire. Letter to NHSB, Docket 69-7 Notice 4 (Number 78), 31 July 1970, in U.S. Department of Transportation Docket Archive (hereafter DOTDA); and Shin Maki et al., Automatic Falling Occupant Protecting Net.

23. Lewis B. Simon, Engineer, Pacific Missile Range, Letter to NHSB, Docket 69-7 Notice 1 (Number 25), 1970, in DOTDA.

24. David Foster, Letter to NHSB, Docket 69-7 Notice 1 (Numbers 7 and 33), 1 September 1969, in DOTDA; and Tom Terry (director of General Motors Safety Center) in discussion with the author, 22 February 2001. When NHTSA set injury standards for more parts of the body, GM could no longer make this claim.

25. J. C. Eckhold, Automotive Safety Director, Ford Motor Company. Letter to Douglas Toms, NHTSA Administrator, in NHTSA Docket 69-7 Notice 7 (Number 6), 3 December 1970, 7, in DOTDA.

26. Edward Cole, Presentation at “Public Hearing on FMVSS 208,” Washington, DC, 27 April 1977, in NHTSA Docket 74-14 Notice 8 (Number 58), 20–27, at 26, in DOTDA.

27. J. L. Veygandt, American Association for Automotive Medicine, Letter to John Volpe, Secretary of Transportation, in NHSB Docket 69-7 Notice 7 (Number 7), 30 November 1970; American Safety Equipment Corporation, Letter to Douglas Toms, NHTSA Administrator, in NHTSA Docket 69-7 Notice 7 (Number 17), 2 December 1970, both in DOTDA; and Rodney H. Dobson, “Seat Belt Users.”

28. Representatives from both Chrysler and Ford made this argument before a Senate subcommittee in 1974: U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Commerce, Motor Vehicle Safety Oversight, 234, 252.

30. Part of this enthusiasm was based on the success of such laws in places like Czechoslovakia (1968) and Victoria, Australia (December 1970). R. J. Barling, “Australia’s Safety Belt Use Laws”; Peter Vulcan, “Australia’s Safety Belt Use Laws.”

31. Many of these efforts were sparked by the Highway Safety Act of 1973 and an NHTSA conference held on the topic: U.S. Department of Transportation, “National Safety Belt Usage Conference.”

32. In 1973 Puerto Rico received $300,000 when it adopted a mandatory seat belt use law. U.S. Congress, House, Subcommittee on Public Works and Transportation, Safety Belt Usage, 143.

33. The act was titled the Transportation Appropriations Act of 1974. “Puerto Rico Gets Safety Belt Law Grant,” 12.

36. The ability of user resistance to affect the success or shape the direction of a particular technology is a common theme in technology studies. See Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch, “Users as Agents”; Martin Bauer, Resistance to New Technology; and Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, How Users Matter.

40. NHTSA, “Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards; Occupant Crash Protection (Final Rule).” It is important to note that despite many reports, NHTSA never actually required that vehicles be equipped with ignition interlocks. The NHTSA rule-making required manufacturers to equip their vehicles with either ignition interlocks or passive restraints for a period of two years, after which time all vehicles would have to be equipped with passive restraints. Once the rule went into effect, nearly all manufacturers chose to use the interlocks, but they were not required to do so.

41. Richard Nixon, “Conversation No 488-15, Transcript #7,” in Richard M. Nixon Tapes, in National Archives. This was part of a conversation among President Nixon, Lido Anthony Iacocca, Henry Ford II, Ronald L. Ziegler, and John D. Ehrlichman in the Oval Office between 11:08 a.m. and 11:43 a.m. on 27 April 1971. A DOT official later remarked: “If that meeting with [the] White House had not taken place, DOT would never have raised the interlock as an alternative to the air bag.” “Eckhardt Seeks Proof of Interlock Deal,” 1, 11.

43. NHTSA, Docket 69-7 Notice 26, in DOTDA.

44. J. Frank Williamson, Traffic Equipment Engineering Co. Letter to NHTSA, Docket 69-7 Notice 26, January 1974, in DOTDA.

45. “‘Safety’ Is the Magic Word,” 12.

47. Donald S. MacNaughton, Chairman and CEO, Prudential Insurance Company of America, Letter to NHTSA, Docket 74-14 Notice 1 (Number 33), 2 May 1974, in DOTDA; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Commerce, Motor Vehicle Safety Oversight, 234. Bruno Latour would refer to these actions as “anti-programs.” See Latour, “Where Are the Missing Masses?”

59. General Motors and Ford did, however, put a few thousand cars on the road equipped with air bags between 1972 and 1976. See Graham, Auto Safety.

60. For a more detailed explanation of how air bags regained traction in the 1980s, see Graham, Auto Safety. For an introduction to the air bag debates in the 1990s, see Wetmore, “Redefining Risks and Redistributing Responsibilities.”

62. These changes were in large part made in response to a U.S. DOT plan enacted by Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole. See Graham, Auto Safety.

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