Automated seat belts
May 19, 2004 9:47 PM   Subscribe

Remember in the late 80s/early 90s when every car in the US (mostly imports, IIRC) had a motorized seat belt for the front seats? Why did that feature go away? Was it due to them breaking down? Being unsafe in accidents? Being annoying in general? I never really heard why they went away, I just sort of noticed they don't exist anymore.
posted by mathowie to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total)
From what I remember, there were more than a few news reports and surveys regarding how people wouldn't buckle the waist belt. Perhaps manufacturers were afraid of the eventual lawsuit about how "the seatbelt the car put on me was broke."
posted by skallas at 9:50 PM on May 19, 2004

Without a lap belt, I could see how they would be unsafe, basically you'd slide down and forward in an accident.
posted by mathowie at 9:56 PM on May 19, 2004

Also, with the standardization of airbags in the late 80s/early 90s, the added cost of a moving seatbelt seems unnecessary ( 3-point seatbelt has been around for 40 years).
posted by BlueTrain at 9:58 PM on May 19, 2004

Both automatic shoulder belts and airbags fulfill the role of a supplemental restraint system (SRS). When SRSes became mandated by the US government, at first the automatic belts were put in place. Once airbags became prominent in the early-mid 90s, the automatic belts faded away. While the belts were cheaper, people probably were just annoyed by them and probably felt safer having an airbag.
posted by zsazsa at 9:58 PM on May 19, 2004

As an aside, I seem to remember a lot of GM cars of this vintage not having a motorized shoulder belt, but instead having the lap and shoulder belt connect to the door itself. Once opened, you could get in and out of the seat without unbuckling. I've tried it -- it's pretty awkward, but I guess it's considered automatic!
posted by zsazsa at 10:09 PM on May 19, 2004

I'd go the super annoying route.

In fact, an acquantice of mine once managed to break a visor because the belt was coming up on it while it was against the window, and they (inadvisably) tried to slam it back into place before the belt got there.

The hinge came off, and naturally, the replacement (since it had a lighted mirror) cost around $100.

also, yeah, lots of people wouldn't buckle the lap belt, in my experience.
posted by fishfucker at 10:48 PM on May 19, 2004

They WERE super annoying. I was looking for a car around the time they were popular, and most mags would tell you to avoid motorized seat belts at all costs, and it had nothing to do with safety.
posted by justgary at 11:56 PM on May 19, 2004

I was a parking valet in college in the late '80s and hated those things, as I often was only going about 100 ft. I'll bet a lot of people found them condescending. Reminded me of Bugs Bunny chasing after that mechanized rabbit at the dog racing track.
posted by planetkyoto at 12:31 AM on May 20, 2004

Because everyone hates them. I have one in the passenger side of my car. Everyone who gets in grumbles and moans and gripes. Maybe its just my friends. Bunch o whiners. hee.
posted by jopreacher at 2:17 AM on May 20, 2004

A foreign invention that we have never even heard of in the UK. Which is a blessing, I s'pose.
posted by dash_slot- at 2:53 AM on May 20, 2004

My '93 Mazda Protege had a motorized shoulder belt.

It was prone to jamming, which could potentially trap someone trying to get out; even though there was a manual release, you might not be in a position to reach it in a critical situation.

And on more than one occasion, the buckle mechanism whacked me in the head when I tried to get in or out of the vehicle faster than the buckle could move. I even got a scalp laceration from it one time.

I am not sorry to see them gone.
posted by briank at 7:10 AM on May 20, 2004

I have one in my car that I actually like. I never buckle my seatbelt, so it's nice that I never have to worry about being pulled over for not wearing one.
posted by angry modem at 7:18 AM on May 20, 2004

The US (? maybe just California?) had a requirement for "passive restraint" in the mid-eighties/early-nineties---you had to have some protection in a crash without having to put on a seatbelt. The motorized seatbelts were one alternative, but most people preferred the less-intrusive alternative: the airbag.

So, I think your answer is that the car companies found that more people preferred, and thus would buy, cars with airbags rather than motorized seat belts, even though the airbags (initially) cost more.
posted by bonehead at 7:19 AM on May 20, 2004

A little from column A, a little from column B.

Behavior-wise, they were annoying to some people. But worse than that, lots of folks with the automatic shoulder belt were too lazy to fasten the lap belt. Matt, the sliding down and forward you describe (in a frontal accident) is called submarining, and it leads to all kinds of bad (and medically expensive) lower limb injuries. Broken heels, tibia/fibula, femurs, and hips.

Injury biomechanics wise, testing showed that the automatic shoulder belts, with lap belts fastened, performed worse than regular 3 point belts. That slight positioning difference seemed to increase the load on the thorax. So things like liver lacerations and broken ribs become more likely.

I've got the automatic belt on my 90 Camry. It's on its last legs though, and I'll be getting rid of it soon.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:40 AM on May 20, 2004

zsazsa and bonehead have it. I used to do product liability litigation, and we had a number of lawsuits against companies who chose to use motorized belts instead of airbags to meet the SRS requirement.

We also had litigation based on the fact that the motorized seat belts only secured the upper torso, not the lap (that was still manual and most people ignored it). In several rollovers people were virtually decapitated by the belt across their neck while their lower body flailed wildly in the forces of the accident.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:54 AM on May 20, 2004

on review, mbd1mdb1 is also correct about submarining in frontal accidents. In other words, failing to attach the lapbelt could lead to bad things whether it was a frontal accident or a rollover.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:56 AM on May 20, 2004

The one in my car is apparently out to kill my friend Pete, by randomly refusing to move when he wants to get out of the car, strangling his precious life out of him.

It's a neat idea (the belts, not strangling Pete), but as someone who can be trusted to buckle up no matter what, I'm glad to have seen them fade away.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:27 AM on May 20, 2004

Apropos of nothing, I have always referred to the bit of the motorized seatbelt that runs on the track as a "hamster." Don't know why, perhaps it just amuses me to think of them as hamsters running back and forth in a habitrail.
posted by kindall at 10:23 AM on May 20, 2004

The decaptiation of people who felt that they were sufficient protection and didn't wear the lap belt is the primary reason I've always heard for their disappearance. And good riddance... another federalized "safety" feature that annoys people and causes more harm than it prevents.
posted by jammer at 10:52 AM on May 20, 2004

Helped a friend of mine take home a daybed from the furniture store a couple of years ago. Vehicle used: '91 Civic. Store dudes tied the furniture box to the top of the car, and looped the rope across the interior through the windows.

The rope prevented the motorized seatbelts from travelling the final 1-1/2 inch to where they wanted to be, and we had to listen to the ding-ding-ding-ding all the way across town.
posted by gimonca at 2:25 PM on May 20, 2004

Late to the thread, but there's another reason:

In a few instances, people's upper torsos were crushed when:

1) a door was forced open in a crash

2) sliding seatlbelt performed its duty to slide forward because the door was open

3) occupant, still attached by the lap belt had head/shoulders arms forced out the door

4) remains of the door or debris mangled the now-exposed portion of the occupant.

A cop in my home town was killed that way, and the local paper reported a couple years later that his death wasn't unique. That had to figure into it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:38 PM on May 20, 2004

They're not compatible with child car seats (some are with extra hardware). Not that kids should be riding in the front if possible, but it's a consideration.
posted by Feisty at 11:56 PM on May 20, 2004

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