Beginning with the 1972 models, all cars, trucks, vans and utility vehicles were required to have seat belts as standard equipment – which was rather late in the game, because doctors have been calling for the installation of seat belts in cars since the 1930s. Those early physicians knew that seat belts could reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. But the car industry in America was an unregulated free-for-all, and every maker balked at putting in seat belts; in fact, many of them believed that having seat belts in a car would only remind drivers and passengers of how dangerous most automobiles were.
Then there were all kinds of stories circulating, absurd stories nonetheless repeated and believed by an unknowing populace, of how ironically unsafe seat belts really were, how they would prevent you from escaping a burning car, or would hold you down if your car went underwater, and how it was safer to be thrown from a car in the event of a crash then be trapped inside by your seatbelt, or how people in severe crashes were actually cut in half by their lap belts. Then there were the people who said that seat belts would only foster risky behavior on the part of drivers, especially giving kids a false sense of safety and encouraging them to drive like speed demons from hell.
On the extreme right of the issue were the civil libertarians who wouldn’t be told by others, by outside forces – by doctors or lawyers or insurance agents or local or state of federal governments – what they can or cannot do inside their cars. So for decades, while the rest of the driving world realized the lifesaving nature of seat belts, American manufactures left it up to the individual purchaser to decide whether to seatbelt their cars or not – and by making it a pricey option, how many would choose paying the extra cash for something they were dubious about, unconvinced of its effectiveness.
The lone pioneer was the Nash Motor Company, which offered the first factory-installed seatbelts in America, installed on its 1950 Nash Statesman and Ambassador models. And by the mid-1950s the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association and the American College of Surgeons and International Association of Chiefs of Police all were calling for the standard installation of lap belts in automobiles; still, in 1959, when a bill surfaced in the New York assembly requiring that all new cars sold in the state have seatbelts, it was soundly rejected – and rejected again the next year when it was re-introduced, all at the same time that the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo was making three-point belts standard in all their cars – not the old two-point belts that only went across your lap, but twin belts that went across your lap and your chest.
But the Ford Motor Company, who was a big proponent of jacking up the price of cars through the sale of a range of options, began a huge advertising campaign in 1956 that focused on the safety of their cars and in particular on the seatbelts – for which you paid extra. And the seatbelts that they were using were actually invented by a Navy flight instructor named Edward J. Hock who, inspired by the belts that were then common in military aircraft, took pieces of parachute webbing – an incredibly strong material, as you would suspect it would have to be, to prevent you from tearing loose and plummeting to the earth – and crafted practical, easy-to-install, easy-to-buckle seatbelts.
In 1955, the Navy began installing his seatbelt in vans and sedans. And for his invention, Hock was awarded $20.50, a letter of recognition from the Wartime Production Board, a picture of himself with the Navy brass and a brief blurb in the local newspaper. That’s all he ever got. Ford just ripped off his invention – because it was theoretically in the public domain, created by a federal employee — and Hock never received one penny more the rest of his life.
Really, no one in the American automobile manufacturing cartel seemed to give a rat’s ass about how dangerous their cars were or how safe were its occupants. And they didn’t have to care, because they were totally unregulated by the federal government and it was left up to the individual states to determine whether to require seat belts.
In 1965, about 50,000 people were killed in one year of automobile crashes; about 47,000 American troops were killed in nine years of fighting in Vietnam. And 1965 was the year that a 31-year-old lawyer, former history professor and son of Lebanese immigrants named Ralph Nader published a book called Unsafe at Any Speed that was a brutal yet referenced indictment of the American auto cabal, with particular focus on the lumbering behemoth but investor’s darling General Motors, with one chapter devoted to its most notorious and lethal lemon, the Chevrolet Corvair. With no admission of liability, Chevrolet had stopped making the car in 1969.
Nader took General Motors to task in public about balking to install safety features, about their refusal to spend money on researching and developing new ways to keep people alive in the case of accidents, and General Motors responded by hiring private detectives to tap Nader’s phones, to investigate every nook of his past looking for information to discredit him and when they couldn’t find one despicable thing, the loathsome executives at GM hired prostitutes to try and trap Nader in a compromising situation. You would think that, instead of trying to paint Nader as some type of lying pervert, that GM would try to defend its Corvair in the press – but it didn’t, perhaps because it couldn’t.
Still, despite all the hubbub and brew-ha-ha automobile safety remained at the back of the American consciousness, and apparently at the bottom of congressmen’s lists of things to care about, because the same year that Nader’s book came out the United State Senate passed a two-year, $320 million highway beautification bill that earmarked $5 million for a study of how best to dispose of scrapped cars, but only $500,000 for a study of highway safety. And it seemed at the time that every effort to reduce traffic crashes and highway fatalities was focused not on the car, but on the driver — or the road. The person behind the wheel died because of an inability to handle the machine, or a car went careening off a cliff because the hillside road was improperly built by highway engineers.
But then Nader trotted out a report that showed that between the 1960 and 1966 models American auto manufacturers had issued 426 recalls involving 8.7 million cars. But here’s the kicker: those recalls didn’t go to the owner of the car, to the public, but to the auto dealer, who was instructed to quietly repair the defects whenever a recalled car came into the shop for other service, and if you never brought your car in, then you drove at the silent mercy of the defect, with no idea whether or when your car would blow up or catch fire or go over the edge or accidentally run over your neighbor’s dog because it had a ticking time-bomb built into the system. Drive American.