When David Hollister introduced a seat belt bill in Michigan in the early 1980s, which imposed a fine for not buckling up, the state official received a hate mail comparing him to Hitler . Back then, only 14% of Americans wore seat belts regularly, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) required lap and shoulder belts in all new cars from 1968 onwards.
Resistance to life-saving appliances at the time was the norm.
Drivers and passengers alike complained that seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive, but the outcry over mandatory seat belt laws was mostly ideological. One of Hollister’s colleagues at Michigan House called the seat belt bill “a very good lesson in mass hysteria created by corporate-controlled media” and warned the government would ban smoking then. Another said anyone who voted for the bill should be called back.
Auto-restraint buzzer interlocking mechanisms
The battle over seat belt laws in America in the 1980s reflected widespread criticism of government regulation in a free society. Controversy first heated up in 1973, when NHTSA demanded that all new cars include an inexpensive technology called a “seat belt locking mechanism” that prevented a vehicle from starting if the driver did not. was not buckled.
“A huge political backlash ensued,” says Jerry Mashaw, professor emeritus at Yale Law School and co-author of The fight for automobile safety. “Congress has received more letters from Americans complaining about [the interlock mechanism] than they did about the Nixon ‘Saturday Night Massacre’.
Congress reacted quickly in 1974 by killing the locking mechanism and further demanding that the annoying buzz that indicated an unlocked seat belt could only last for eight seconds.
The NHTSA hasn’t given up on seat belts, however. He adopted a new rule in 1977 that put the ball squarely in the car manufacturers’ court. Detroit had to install some sort of “passive restraint” – a system that worked automatically without driver intervention – that would protect a crash test dummy from damage when hitting a wall at 35 mph.
The only real options back then, Mashaw says, were airbags and what are known as “automatic seat belts,” a front seat belt that ran along a rail and closed automatically when the car door closed. closed. Automakers didn’t like either option, but decided to go with automatic seat belts because they were cheaper. Consumers immediately began to argue that automatic seat belts were unsafe in a car fire, potentially trapping passengers in a burning car. The automakers agreed to add a release latch, which drivers could easily disconnect, rendering the automatic belt ineffective.
But before any of these changes could be made, Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a promise of deregulation, especially of the auto industry. One of the first things the Reagan administration did was rescind the NHTSA rule requiring passive restrictions. Insurance companies sued the administration and the case went to the Supreme Court. In a surprise decision, the judges voted unanimously to block the Reagan administration and enforce the NHTSA rule.
“The Reagan administration has been brought to a standstill,” Mashaw says. “They were die hard deregulators and the Supreme Court told them they had to regulate. There is no way they can justify saying that the passive restraints weren’t working, so Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of the Department of Transportation, came up with what I think is an ingenious compromise.
Elizabeth Dole’s compromise
Dole issued a rule in 1985 requiring car manufacturers to install driver side airbags in all new cars. unless– and that’s the kick-off – two-thirds of states passed mandatory seat belt laws on April 1, 1989. Dole’s Rule was so politically adept because it looked like a regulation, but really was. a gift for the automotive industry. Cars already had seat belts, so all Detroit had to do was convince states to pass mandatory seat belt laws and he was off the hook installing expensive airbags or automatic belts.
Lobbying has been intense, with senior executives from General Motors and Chrysler, including Lee Iacocca, making a direct pitch to state lawmakers about seat belt safety.
“Big heaters were all over this one,” said an Illinois lawmaker at the time. “They were all working on us. I have not seen such a heavily solicited bill in a long time. ”
There have even been accusations that GM was pressuring states to pass seat belt law or be excluded from possible locations for a multibillion-dollar Saturn plant. GM called the allegations “absolutely ridiculous.”
New York was the first state to pass a mandatory seat belt law, followed by New Jersey. In New York City, not wearing seat belts resulted in a fine of $ 50, which was not a small change in 1985. Officials said that thanks to the law, seat belt compliance is increased to 70% in New York in less than a year, but it was not. that doesn’t mean everyone liked it. As one Bronx resident grumbled, “This isn’t supposed to be Russia where the government tells you what to do and when to do it.”
Car manufacturers are required to install airbags
In the end, the tough sell by the automakers failed. At least eight states have repealed mandatory seat belt laws for ideological reasons, and among the states that have passed them, too many new seat belt laws fell short of the standards set by Dole’s Rule. Either the fine was too low (less than $ 25) or failure to wear a seat belt was not listed as a “predicate” offense, meaning that people could only be ticketed if they were stopped for speeding or for another traffic violation.
Since seat belt qualification laws were not passed in two-thirds of states, automakers had to comply with Dole’s rule of origin and install driver’s side airbags in all new ones. cars from the early 1990s.
“We ended up with air bags and mandatory seat belt use laws,” says Mashaw. “There was still a lot of resistance from people who thought it was a terrible attack on their freedom. People were selling T-shirts that looked like you were wearing a seat belt. ”
As of August 2020, New Hampshire was the only state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults, a product of its libertarian “Live Free or Die” trend. As a result, seat belt use in New Hampshire has stagnated at 70% compared to over 90% nationally.