Seatbelts In The 1990s Were Completely Absurd

Illustration for article titled Seatbelts In The 1990s Were Completely Absurd

Now we’re used to every new car having an airbag, but back in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, they were still phasing in. As an alternative, carmakers could legally get away with offering another passive system: automatic seatbelts. The ones in a Chevy Lumina, for example, were particularly unreal.

Again, according to law from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), cars needed a kind of passive safety system, one that would work even on idiots who don’t look out for their own safety. It’s a sad fact of humanity that any safety measure that requires regular personal intervention regularly doesn’t work. The straightforward solution was an airbag, a technology that the Big Three had been offering since the 1960s. But airbags are expensive and scary, so many car companies gave automatic belts a try. Well, first carmakers fought against any regulation that made them use any safety tech, delaying the implementation of mandatory seat belts or air bags for nearly the entire span of the 1980s, fighting and delaying, fighting and delaying again. But by the end of the decade, carmakers had to put something in their cars. Automatic seat belts are as close to a spiteful safety solution as we ever got.


Most automatic belts worked by mounting the belt directly to the door, up by the windshield, then whirring the belt back towards the seat with a little motor. Whirrrrrrr every time you got in the car, clipping you into place. Not a great feeling.

GM’s solution was even more basic. You can see that in this 1990 Chevy Lumina, the belt is latched to the door, but it’s latched back towards the seat. What you were supposed to do was keep the belt clipped in at all times, then step in and out of the car through the belt.

That NHTSA didn’t tell GM to fuck right off is amazing.

Naturally, GM’s solution was awkward, terrible and completely confusing. The owner’s manual devoted 51 pages to how it all worked, as Regular Car Reviews notes in the above video. Thankfully, now that airbags are fully mandated for all new cars, we don’t have to deal with automatic belts any more. Would I be happier if everyone just clicked in their seat belts like normal? Yes. Yes I would. But that’s a story for a different time.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.


I’m pretty sure this system (and Hyundai copied it, too) was an explicit attempt to design the worst system possible just to spite the NHTSA for their passive safety mandate.

Also, Volkswagen split the difference, with a door-mounted shoulder belt, but a manual lap belt. Except in the Cabrio, where they retrofitted an airbag, because they couldn’t have automatic belts on a convertible.