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When New Seat Belt Laws Drew Fire as a Violation of Personal Freedom

August 31, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

The 1980s battle over safety belt laws reflected widespread ambivalence over the role and value of government regulation.

When David Hollister introduced a seat belt bill in Michigan in the early 1980s that levied a fine for not buckling up, the state representative received hate mail . “Congress received more letters from Americans complaining about [the interlock mechanism] than they did about Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’”

Congress responded swiftly in 1974 by killing the interlock mechanism and further mandating that the annoying buzzing sound that indicated an unlatched seat belt could only last eight seconds.

The NHTSA didn’t give up on seat belts, though. It passed a new rule in 1977 that put the ball squarely in the automakers’ court. Detroit had to install some kind of “passive restraint”—a system that worked automatically without driver intervention—that would protect a crash test dummy from damage when hitting a wall at 35 mph.

The only real options at the time, says Mashaw, were airbags and something called “automatic safety belts,” a front seat belt that ran along a track and automatically fastened when the car door closed. Automakers didn’t love either option, but decided to go with the automatic safety belts because they were cheaper. Consumers immediately began arguing that automatic seat belts were unsafe in a car fire, potentially trapping passengers in a burning car. Carmakers agreed to add a release latch, which drivers could easily disconnect, rendering the automatic belt ineffective.

But before any of those changes could be made, Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a promise of deregulation, especially of the automotive industry. One of the first things the Reagan administration did was to rescind the NHTSA rule requiring passive restraints. Insurance companies sued the administration and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a surprise ruling, the justices voted unanimously to block the Reagan administration and enforce the NHTSA’s rule.

“The Reagan administration was put in a bind,” says Mashaw. “They were diehard deregulators and the Supreme Court told them they had to regulate. There’s no way they could justify saying that passive restraints didn’t work, so Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of the Department of Transportation, came up with what I think was an ingenious compromise.”

Elizabeth Dole’s Compromise

Elizabeth Dole, shown in here in 1983, served as Secretary of Transportation for the United States under President Reagan.

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