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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.