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.


SVS

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.

Steve

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.

tim

SVS sounds like a car seat industry flack

Eugene Falik

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.

Tim

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

frankenduf

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

Boris

> 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...

Ray

> 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.

Doug Gentry

I didn't see a mention here - perhaps it popped up elsewhere. The seatbelt story is also an excellent example of moral hazard. It saved lives, but probably led to an increase in accidents, as drivers felt more secure and took greater risks while wearing a seatbelt.

JJM 63

Ray, The LATCH system was supposed to fix things, but then the committees and the lobbiests got a hold of it, and it just added another layer of confusion onto things.

European seats are designed to be hard ot mis-use, with a solid mechnical connection, not belts and straps and buckles.

Holly Grogan

I dont see how the the sentence "would'nt it make sense to focus less on car seats and focus more on optimising the seat belt" makes sense. There is no proof given here that seat belts are a problem. Seatbelts are helpful and do save many lives, however as long as child seats are secured properly they do the same. Of course we should always look to make things safer and the inflatable seat belts may be a great addition to what we have now ,but i do not think it should replace anything we have already esatblished.

James Peterson

While in High School in the mid 60's, I joined the Civil Air Patrol & use to ride in the Back of a WWII Jeep searching the Mountains for downed Airplanes!
Lots of Fun then, scares me now, ha!
Also flew in their Piper Cubs & took lesions.
And learned about Seat Belts!

Mother & I had come to CA from Minn a few years earlier (in a 50 Merc) & we wanted to go back for a visit.
We bought a new 56 Ford with the Big engine of course & I insisted on the new (1st year) seat Belts, Padded Dash & Visors.

On the return trip we were coming to Yellowstone & there was construction ahead stopping traffic.
Mother rear ended the car ahead (think she was on medication) & both of us wearing Seat Belts had no injuries.

Later I had a 58 VW that I rear ended another car with (they got the Ticket), Seat Belt held but hit the Steering Wheel rim on my Nose & got a little cut, (Sun glasses).

Next was a 58 Mercedes 180 sedan that I hopped up a bit & installed the Volvo Diagonal Belts.
Later sold it to a Drag Strip operator.

Then a 65 Mustang Hi-Po 4 sp, I had made custom 3” Lap Belts with 2” Shoulder Harness, both seats.
Transferred to 63 Galaxie & then to 64 Fairlane, over a 40 year period.

Anyone not wearing Seat Belts is an Idiot !

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James Peterson

Error, should be mid 50's while in High School, thanks.