Safety is a big deal for car buyers and owners today. Most people check a car’s safety ratings and crash-test scores before buying, and if someone sees you drive without buckling a seatbelt, they’ll look at you like you just chugged an anthrax smoothie. But this wasn’t always the case. Once, a long time ago, consumers cared so little about safety they complained to congress to make their cars less safe.
Back in the days before people thought human life was actually worth something, we valued convenience and freedom from being told what to do far more than abstract concepts like “not getting thrown through the windshield in a wreck.” That’s why, thanks to “a substantial number of complaints sent to Congress” a 1973 law that required seatbelts to be fastened before a car could be started was eliminated in October 1974.
The seat belt interlock systems mandated in 1973 were a pretty basic safety measure, but were also pretty effective. Simply put, the mechanism was designed to prevent the car from starting unless the seat belt was fastened.
This simple mechanism seems to have worked well; one study showed that, compared to 1973 cars that just had an annoying buzzer, the interlock-quipped 1974 car-drivers were 41% more likely to use lap and shoulder safety belts—up from 7% in the 1973 cars to 48% in 1974.
That’s an impressive jump, even if the system seems to have been defeated by 52% of drivers, somehow.
The problem was that drivers hated this system. A significant number of people decided that they’d literally rather be more likely to die than to have their stupid car calling the shots and telling them what they can or can’t buckle.
The September 2nd, 1974 issue of Time described it like this:
“Though it is intended to save them from injury or worse, many motorists resent the “interlock” system on 1974 cars, which prevents the engine from starting until the driver and all front-seat passengers have buckled their seat belts. Impressed by the volume and vehemence of constituent mail on the subject, House members voted two weeks ago 339 to 49 to tack onto a Department of Transportation appropriations bill an amendment that would kill the requirement that cars be equipped with an interlock system (and also the annoying buzzer that sounds when a seat belt is unfastened...”
Just take a moment and think about this in light of our modern standards. It seems absolutely insane. This was a safety advance that had a proven record of being effective at getting people to wear safety belts, but nobody wanted anything to do with it.
Today, when nearly everyone wears a seat belt, it’s hard to picture how affronted people were at the idea of having to use equipment that they didn’t even really trust, mostly for highly suspect folk-wisdom reasons like “you want to be thrown from the wreck.”
Even airbags, which are a mostly passive safety device in that you don’t really have to do anything to have them work (though you really still need that seat belt to keep you in the proper position for the airbag) still faced a lot of pushback from both automakers and public.
The same act of Congress that killed the interlock also added a provision to “give Congress 60 days to veto any Federal standard calling for air bags or other kinds of passive restraint systems in cars.”
Car buyers in the 1970s really, really didn’t like safety bullshit.
Also incredible to modern minds is that not only was the interlock safety feature no longer required, but owners of cars with the feature were allowed to disable the devices as they saw fit.
I grew up in this era, and drove in a number of 1974 cars. I don’t ever recall any of them having a working ignition/seatbelt interlock. This was also the era when child seats in cars were more just to keep the kid out of the way and their little sticky hands off you than for any real safety reason.
The idea of a public outcry to do something that significantly reduces the safety of cars seems so incredibly foreign and alien to me now, based on how I know society works.
Even so, there’s still a little, messed-up part of me, a part forged back then in my 1970s and 1980s childhood, that kind of understands and sympathizes with those cranky, likely brown-clad 1970s bastards, bitching and moaning about having to put on a seatbelt.
We’re better off today, no question, but there are times I miss the old America, rolling its eyes drunkenly at death while lighting up yet another cigarette.