Is Ford Once Again Leading the Way in Auto Safety?

In SuperFreakonomics, we tell the story of how Robert Strange McNamara, an outsider at the Ford Motor Co., led the charge the put seat belts in automobiles at Ford. It was not a popular decision within the company nor with the public; pushing for a safety device in a car did a bit too good of a job of reminding people that cars could be quite unsafe. But McNamara got his way. Over time (a long time, it turned out), the seat belt won widespread adoption, saving roughly 250,000 lives in the U.S. alone since 1975.

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that Ford has now, in the words of The Times‘s Nick Bunkley, “turned its seat belt into a marketing tool.” What’s the innovation? Ford plans to “be the first automaker to offer inflatable rear seat belts, a technology aimed at reducing injuries to children and elderly passengers in a crash.”

Elsewhere in SuperFreakonomics, we show how child car seats offer little advantage for passengers over age 2 when compared to adult-sized lap-and-shoulder belts, even though such belts obviously aren’t optimized to fit children. (Some people are not big fans of this research.) We also make the point that, since so many rear-seat passengers are children, wouldn’t it make sense to focus less on car seats and focus more on optimizing the seat belt?

Back in the day, Henry Ford II wasn’t crazy about McNamara’s seat-belt obsession. “McNamara is selling safety,” he said, “but Chevrolet is selling cars.”

For the moment, at least, it looks like Ford is selling both.

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  1. SVS says:

    The research you comment in Freakonomics is not the definite proof that we should give up the child car seat. I think that there is a little bit of science in the crash tests that car seat makers do.

    And if the problem is that parents don’t know how to fix the car seat properly, you can’t conclude that they are unsafe. It is the same as blaming the pharmaceutical industry for a wrong use of their medicine.

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  2. Steve says:

    Your research did NOT “show how child car seats offer little advantage for passengers over age 2 when compared to adult-sized lap-and-shoulder belts.”

    You pointed out that child car seats may not save many lives compared to a regular seat belt. I believe that you did, however, find that car seats reduced injuries to children.

    Assuming car seats do reduce injuries, from a purely economic perspective, it is possible that the savings in medical and related costs for the injuries make the car seat a good value. At the very least, there is a potential “advantage” worthy of consideration.

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  3. tim says:

    SVS sounds like a car seat industry flack

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  4. Eugene Falik says:

    Way back in 1992, we bought a (Ford) Mercury Sable because is was one of the few cars with dual front seat belts.

    Unfortunately, the car leaked like a sieve in the rain, and ford replaced it with a 1994 model — which we kept until the engine literally fell out! at about 90,000 niles. Before that, the transmission had to be rebuilt at about 55,000. Earlier, the brakes failed when a hose burst at about 20,000 miles.

    Our most recent acrs have been Toyota Camry’s. We got rid of the 1985 one at just over 100,000 miles. We still have a 1994 Camry with 116,000 miles. It needs struts and has a small oil leak.

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  5. Tim says:

    Wait, they’re increasing safety as a marketing device to increase profits? A free market solution leading to increased safety? Blasphemy!

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  6. frankenduf says:

    Ralph Nader also led the charge to mandate seat belts for the auto industry- unsafe at any speed remains the bible for the safety critique of the industry

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  7. Boris says:

    > I think that there is a little bit of science in the crash tests
    > that car seat makers do.

    SVS, can you point me to any crash tests comparing the performance of car seats and seat belts? There are lots of crash tests comparing car seats to unrestrained children, but none that I’ve found yet comparing to seatbelts…

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  8. Ray says:

    > And if the problem is that parents don’t know how to fix the
    > car seat properly, you can’t conclude that they are unsafe. It
    > is the same as blaming the pharmaceutical industry for a
    > wrong use of their medicine.

    If the seat cannot be designed so that the majority of the people install it correctly, then it is a failure. Blaming the installers is pointless; when the failure rate is that high, the problem is the product.

    If the pharmaceutical industry designed their medicines in a way that caused most people to misuse them, your analogy might hold. But it does not.

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