A recent entry in JP Cavanaugh’s COAL, about his 1968 Chrysler sparked some personal memories, and some comments, about subverted automotive safety features. In JPC’s case, that trigger had to do with his discovering how the previous/original owners of his car had “hidden” the seat belts under the seats – presumably because they disdained the use of seat belts and the damn things just got in the way. But also, as you may know, Chryslers of that age had separate shoulder belts for front seat passengers. These belts required a separate buckling system for the shoulder belt. When not in use, that belt was stowed against the roof above the front doors. As one might imagine, the vast majority of drivers simply left those belts in their stowed position and never used them; thereby subverting a federally-mandated automotive safety feature.
You can just make out the front passenger seat shoulder belt on this 1969 Chrysler. If you haven’t seen one of these systems in person, the idea is that the belts when not in use are stowed via a set of clips just above each of the front doors. Not stowing them will result in a long dangling strap in the cabin. Properly stowing them involves some amount of attention to actually clipping the belts up there. As the picture shows, even when stowed, the belt tends to hang loosely and just looks messy. You can therefore imagine why many many drivers just kept the belts up there and never touched them.
Along with the 1968 federal (US) requirement that new cars have shoulder belts for front seat passengers, manufacturers were also required to install systems that warned/urged drivers to buckle up. I’m sure that some here on CC will be able to parse the exact sequence of requirements within the relevant NHTSA regulations (which is what makes the comments here so very interesting and searchable), but the upshot is that since the late 1960s, cars in the US – and ultimately the rest of the world – have been rather insistent about telling us when we’ve forgotten to buckle up.
In the case of Chrysler’s ceiling-mounted shoulder belts, the warning system was only triggered if the lap belts were not buckled. The shoulder belt had no warning, thereby providing a pretty painless way for most drivers to ignore the shoulder belts.
Chrysler’s Master Tech film from 1972 does an excellent job of explaining how their seatbelt warning system worked, in case you didn’t already know. Even if you do know how it works, this is a fun watch for the cheesy images and the blast from the past that comes from watching a video of a filmstrip.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that I’m not the only one here at CC who spent much of elementary school/junior high as the kid who always got assigned the job of sitting at the controls of the DuKane, listening for the “Ding” indicating it was time to advance the strip. Dreams about running the filmstrip projector (as well as threading the big green metal Bell and Howell 16mm movie projector) invade my sleep almost as frequently as those about coming to school on the last day of the term, pants-less, and having to take an exam on material that I’ve never seen.
But I digress.
By 1974, Chrysler had apparently scrapped the filmstrip presentations and switched to a film of two swingin’ 70’s ladies demonstrating the joys of attempting to start a car with the infamous one-year-only seatbelt interlock system. Let’s just say that Chrysler really got its money’s worth out of putting these two actors/models through their paces. There are bits of this video that play like a Mr. Wizard segment as the dark-haired actor demonstrates how the under-seat switch works with a disassembled seat and a spare 12v battery.
In case you don’t have a spare 20 minutes to watch this one, just zoom ahead to 4:40 when our two intrepid interlock demonstrators show how bouncing on the seat activates the switches. Good stuff.
You’ll also notice that by 1974, Chrysler had switched to what is essentially a modern 3-point belting system. This meant that finding ways to avoid the shoulder harness would be more difficult, even without an interlock system.
And so you’d think that around about then most drivers would simply suck it up and properly belt themselves so as to avoid warning lights and buzzers. Maybe. But maybe not. Not only are there currently (2022) states that do not enforce on-the-books seatbelt laws (NH being that state), but there are still plenty of people who chafe at belt usage and find various ways to avoid use of the most basic of automotive passenger/driver safety systems.
Or maybe I should say proper belt usage. These devices – readily available online by “asking your smart speaker…” – are called “seatbelt tension adjusters” and they can be used to effectively eliminate the function of shoulder belts. I’ve been in cars with folks who have one of these things clipped onto the belt so that it is locked into a fully slack position (not kept tight by the belt’s inertial retractor system). Apparently this addresses what the ads for these things call a “comfort issue”. Of course, this also means that in the event of a crash, the person’s torso would be free to fly forward without restraint. I would think that a little pressure from a belt on one’s scapula or against the neck is nothing compared to taking a bite of the dashboard or being hit by an airbag that does not expect you to be THAT close to it upon deployment. It’s amazing to me that a device like this can be legally – I guess – sold to the public.
Another commonly subverted safety device – or maybe I should say commonly ignored safety device – is the tire pressure monitoring system. I regularly encounter rental cars where the light is on when I go to pick up the car. I have heard drivers complain about “that light that keeps coming on”. The idea that there may be a reason why the car is trying to warn you of something seems not sufficient to push the drier to investigate the root cause. And so, the light just stays on causing intermittent annoyance. I don’t get it.
A similar set of thought (or not-thought) processes seem to infect some drivers who encounter service warnings, traction control systems, and the like. Some of the thinking about things such as traction control systems appears to be that “real” drivers don’t need to be subject to the nannying efforts of modern car manufacturers and that the proper approach to such systems is to try to “code them out”. Coding things out being the 21st century equivalent to Tom and Ray Magliozzi’s famous “black electrical tape”.
However one subverts the warnings or the systems, online forums are full of advice for how to perform operations such as removing your airbags and coding out the warnings/sensors, or how to eliminate brake wear warnings by chopping off or shorting out the sensors and likewise coding out the warning light. It seems that if there’s a will, there’s a way; but why is there the will to begin with?
So, that’s the question of the day…what automotive safety systems or devices have you encountered that “some drivers” feel that they could do better without and therefore find ways to subvert? And whether or not you have chosen to put up with a safety device, are there such devices that you feel that you’d be better off not having? Has someone you know invested effort un-doing a car’s as-built safety feature(s)?