Benevolent nagging can be a good thing if it prompts people to do what they ought to be doing anyway. This is the case with a new safety belt reminder system Ford has added to its late-model passenger vehicles. The system features a series of gentle chimes and warning lights to persuade motorists to fasten their safety belts. Driver belt use is 76 percent in Fords with the reminder system, compared with 71 percent in other vehicles, a new Institute study shows.
By federal mandate, all cars have reminders to buckle up, but they last only four to eight seconds and are so familiar to most motorists that they're easy to tune out. What makes Ford's reminder different — and effective — is that it isn't as easy to ignore. When a driver starts a vehicle without buckling up, the Ford system stays on up to five minutes past the initial mandatory reminder. A chime and warning light sound and flash intermittently for six seconds, pause for half a minute, and then repeat for up to five minutes or until the driver buckles up.
"Reminders like this, if used across the entire vehicle fleet, could do a lot to increase belt use among the remainder of people who still drive unbuckled," says Allan Williams, Institute chief scientist. About 73 percent of drivers on U.S. roads use their belts, so there's room for improvement. Belt use is 90 percent or higher in Canada, Australia, and many European countries.
"Making gains among that last quarter of U.S. nonusers is difficult because they're the least likely to be influenced to buckle up. So even a modest increase is significant because you're reaching the people who are at highest risk of crashing," Williams says.
The new findings about Ford's belt reminder system were obtained in an observational survey conducted in August and September 2001. In cooperation with Ford, Institute researchers observed belt use among drivers of vehicles brought to dealerships in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Overall, 76 percent of drivers in cars equipped with the reminder were using their belts compared with 71 percent of drivers in late-model Fords without the special reminder. This 5 percentage point difference is statistically significant, Williams says. He points out that if this feature were in every vehicle on U.S. roads, it could save about 700 lives each year.
Safety belt use was higher among both men and women. In Oklahoma (where the study was conducted), belt use is 68 percent overall, 5 percentage points lower than the national average.
Percent driver belt use in Fords with and without reminders
Ford's reminder system isn't like the belt-inducing technologies that have been tried before in the United States. In the early 1970s when safety belt use was very low, the federal government began requiring buzzer-lights in new vehicles to activate for at least a minute if front-seat occupants were unbuckled when a vehicle was started. This approach was followed by a mandate for safety belt interlocks that prevented starting a car if the front-seat occupants were unbelted. Public reaction to the interlocks was so negative that in 1974 Congress eliminated the standard and outlawed any future federal requirement for interlocks.
Congress also restricted the standard for buzzers, specifying that the government could only require ones lasting eight seconds or less. The buzzer restriction was invoked even though there hadn't been any real public outcry about the longer buzzers.
Reminders like Ford's new one cannot be mandated for all cars due to the 1974 prohibition. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given a nod to what it calls Ford's "innovative approach." The agency says it's trying to encourage manufacturers to evaluate whether new types of warning systems can increase belt use while still being acceptable to users.
Congress is interested in the Ford system, too. The recently passed appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Transportation includes language directing a study of "the benefits and acceptability of technologies that may enhance seat belt usage in passenger vehicles, as well as any legislative or regulatory action that may be necessary to enable the installation of such devices."
Sweden is experimenting with a more ambitious system than the one Ford has introduced in the United States. It's an audible and pulsating light system that intensifies the faster a vehicle is driven until the driver buckles up. This system is in the prototype stage. Meantime, the European New Car Assessment Program has begun offering credit to vehicles with belt reminders that use both sound and light and meet certain minimum criteria.
It wasn't the federal government but rather a corporate champion who facilitated Ford's belt reminder concept. He was Gurminder Bedi, the former vice president of Ford North America truck product development, says Ernie Grush, manager of data analysis at Ford until his retirement last year. Bedi challenged his staff to increase belt use in the current generation of vehicles, and the Ford reminder system was the result.
Ford has received few complaints about the system, Grush says. Much of the feedback has been positive, including some from parents who say they're glad the reminders are there when their newly licensed teenagers take the wheel.
The success of Ford's system should help to dispel the notion that the public won't accept belt reminder technology. Williams notes that "the interlocks tried in the 1970s were an aggressive approach taken at a time when few people wore seat belts. But today attitudes toward safety are much different. You're not going to have those kinds of acceptability problems with new belt reminder systems as long as they're not overly intrusive."
The reminder is in some 2000 Ford models, most 2001s, and all 2002s. It's possible to permanently deactivate the system by following a complicated sequence of instructions outlined in the owner's manual. The system also can be circumvented by buckling and then unbuckling the driver belt.