Interlocks may force drivers to buckle up

 David Shepardson

The Detroit News

August 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

Washington —After nearly 40 years, the auto industry may again force drivers to buckle up before they can start their cars.

But first, federal regulators will conduct more research before it allows automakers to install seat belt-ignition interlocks in order to skip crash tests designed to protect unbelted motorists. The U.S. government required interlocks on nearly all 1974-model cars before an outcry prompted Congress to overrule the unpopular mandate almost 40 years ago.

On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rejected a petition from German automaker BMW AG, which wanted to skip certain crash-testing requirements if it installed seat belt interlocks in the front seat.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said Monday the agency is launching a new research effort on the interlocks.

A change in rules might allow automakers to use interlocks rather than be forced to meet crash requirements for occupants not wearing seat belts. Such a rule change, NHTSA said, could allow automakers “the design freedom to create innovative lightweight vehicle concepts.”

In a notice denying BMW’s request, NHTSA said, “Removing the protection offered to unbelted occupants would be unprecedented for NHTSA, considering unbelted crash test requirements date back to the 1970s.” It said it wanted more information.

The petition filed by BMW said hundreds of lives could be saved by increasing seat belt use. BMW said interlocks could make its vehicles lighter and more spacious, because it would be able to remove knee bolsters, since belted occupants would remain in place. It said that change alone could reduce fuel use by as much as 45,700 gallons a year.

There are three different interlocks, BMW said, that could be used: One would bar a driver from starting the vehicle without a belt. Another would prevent a driver from shifting the vehicle out of park. A third would only allow the vehicle to be driven at low speeds without the driver wearing a seat belt. BMW said the third option could allow drivers to go to the mailbox “and would be the least annoying and most accepted type of interlock.”

BMW said it didn’t think rear-seat interlocks make sense, citing the problem of putting cargo like grocery bags in the rear seat.

NHTSA said there may be benefits in requiring an interlock. But it said the change “potentially puts unbelted occupants at an increased risk of harm.”

With seat belt use reaching 86 percent in 2012 — near its all-time high — motorists may be more willing to consider the devices.

Many regulations are aimed at preventing unbelted occupants from being killed or injured, including roof strength rules and side-curtain air bags. Unbelted motorists account for 52 percent of those killed in crashes. Seat belts remain the single most successful auto safety device.

Last year, Congress gave NHTSA permission to write regulations allowing automakers to voluntarily install seat belt interlocks to meet compliance measures. NHTSA emphasized any automaker could add interlocks, but they would still have to comply with the unbelted test.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found about half of full-time seat belt wearers support interlocks.

Strickland wants research on a voluntary standard for an undefeatable seat belt interlock. Many drivers of the 1974 cars defeated the interlock by locking the belts behind them and sitting on them.

“I will ask for research to examine opportunities for modifying certain regulations if there is 100 percent certainty that everyone is wearing a belt,” he said. “This could provide manufacturers design flexibility and options to not only improve the margin of safety in a crash, but could also relieve regulatory burdens and save significant costs.”

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20130829/AUTO01/308290024/Ignition-interlocks-may-force-drivers-buckle-up?odyssey=tab%7Ctopnews%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE

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