Ford tests new seat belt ideas
Carmaker developing four-point, inflatable designs to improve safety.
Sofia Kosmetatos / The Detroit News
The Ford 250 Super Chief concept vehicle, the automaker displayed proposed inflatable safety belts and a four-point "belt and suspenders" safety design for some models.
DEARBORN -- The seat belt of the future looks like a belt and suspenders, and it hooks on like a backpack, with a strap over each shoulder.
Ford Motor Co. is researching the design as a possible replacement for the three-point belt that has been an industry standard since 1974. The automaker showed off the four-point system during a media briefing Tuesday.
Ford also is studying improvements to current seat belt design that incorporate an air bag placed directly into the chest strap.
The changes are still years away from the market, but Ford hopes such technologies will someday increase the use of belts and save more lives.
"A number of technical challenges still need to be overcome before implementing these restraint systems," Dr. Priya Prasad, a safety fellow at Ford, said in a statement. "If we are successful in implementing these technologies, we will be redefining the nature of future occupant restraint systems."
Despite safety advances such as air bags and air curtains that cushion impacts, the most important safety device in cars is still the seat belt, Prasad said.
Government experts agree.
"Safety belts have saved more lives than all other safety issues combined," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Seat belts help reduce fatalities by about 50 percent, Tyson said, and save 15,200 lives per year in traffic accidents.
"Every time we increase belt use nationwide, that number goes up," he said.
Ford first offered optional front and rear lap seat belts in 1956, but belts weren't mandatory until 1974, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required a three-point belt that looks like the ones used today.
Manufacturers have improved the three-point belt over the years, replacing nylon with polyester, for example, and adding belt tensioners to keep people strapped in more securely.
Belts reduce impact of crash
Ford took the idea for the four-point belt, which it has been developing since 2001, from the seat restraints used by race car drivers. That design holds a person more firmly in place.
In prototype testing, the company said consumers thought the four-point belt was more comfortable. Seniors thought that it was easier to use because the buckle is in the front and easier to latch.
Ford developed an inflatable belt as a way to bring the benefit of air bags to passengers in the rear seat.
A strap of air bag material is hidden in the seat belt strap, which is slightly wider and a little thicker than a traditional strap. When the air bag sensor deploys, the bag rips through the seams of the seat belt and inflates into a cylindrical shape.
The bag helps spread the forces of a crash over a broader section of the body than the traditional two-inch wide seat belt, reducing the pressure on the chest and helping to control the movement of the head and neck.
Both the four-point belt and the inflatable design cut down on the pressure on the chest from impacts, according to Ford research.
That especially would benefit the elderly, who are more susceptible to torso injuries from the pressure of the restraints in a crash, said Stephen Rouhana, senior technical leader in Ford's Safety Research & Advanced Engineering department.
Design receives applause
Safety advocates praise the research to improve seat belts, saying the focus should remain on enhancing the existing design.
"The first issue when it comes to seat belts is making today's seat belts better than what they are with known technology," said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "The inflatable seat belt has been known since the 1970s," when it was used on some research vehicles, Ditlow said.
"There's no reason why that shouldn't be in cars right now."
Ford faces a couple of obstacles in its four-point belt design, starting with adopting the front-latch design for use by pregnant women. The buckle isn't too comfortable on a distended belly, and the shape also changes the way the belt sits on the body and distributes pressure in impacts, Rouhana said.
The federal government must also approve the design.
"We're not exactly sure it's going to meet standards or not," said Tyson of NHTSA, which has been informally discussing the design with Ford. So far, Ford is the only car company that has approached NHTSA about a new seat belt design, he said.
The four-point seat belt would be incorporated into the seat of the vehicle, not the frame. Ford is working on a seat design it can adapt across models.