Four Beats Three

Way back in 1959, Swedish carmaker Volvo introduced the world's first production three-point seat belts. In those days, use of simple lap belts was very low, so the innovation went largely unnoticed. But through the years, this one safety feature has saved an estimated 123,000 lives, quite impressive for a few pounds of nylon and steel.

Last year alone, approximately 11,000 people owed their lives to three-point belts, and that number would almost double if more people used seat belts.

Now the auto industry is poised on the brink of another innovation, closely related to the three-point belt. Volvo, its parent Ford Motor Company, and other auto manufacturers are investigating various types of four-point safety belts. These belts, which a similar to seat belts used in racecars, secure both shoulders rather than running diagonally across the torso. Because of this, four-point seat belts distribute the crash forces over more of the chest, reducing the pressure on the ribcage, heart and lungs. They also help hold the occupant in place during crashes that put limitations on today's belt designs.

Volvo and Ford are collaborating on four-point seat belt research with a team headed out of Sweden by Christer Gustafsson, Volvo senior safety engineer, and David Wagner, Ford safety technical specialist. Two innovative styles are being evaluated by the team: the "X4" design and the "V4" design. The "X4" belt system utilizes a standard three-point belt plus a single belt that comes over the shoulder, down across the torso and attaches near the lap belt buckle. The "V4" design owes even more to automobile racing. It uses two shoulder belts, so fitting it is like putting on a backpack. Each belt goes over a shoulder and secures in a buckle on the lap belt. Both designs have been shown to be effective in rollover and side impact crashes during laboratory tests.

One major unknown about four-point belts is how users will accept them. Just as with three-point belts, four-point belts do no good if they are left sitting on the seat cushion. To determine their acceptability, during the Detroit International Auto Show, Ford asked show attendees to assess ease of use and comfort for both styles.

"We were very eager to watch people's reactions and discuss their concerns," Wagner said. "Consumers were very excited about the prospects of additional safety benefits from the four-point belt. We're still weighing the advantages of both designs."

Both engineers feel they are close to coming up with production-ready four-point belts that are acceptable to both the public and governmental agencies.

"While a few engineering challenges remain, I believe we'll have something in the next three years that meets the expectations of our engineering teams here in Sweden and Dearborn and of course those of our customers," said Gustafsson. "In the near future, we will be entering into discussions with regulatory agencies around the world including the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to discuss our findings and the regulatory implications of four-point belts."

While it seems four-point belts are on the way, this is no time to ignore the advances in three-point belts that we have seen over the years. Today's three-point belt design is quite different from its distant 1959 parent. Thanks to advances in materials, research, testing and real world use, seat belts are more effective than ever. Safety engineers also have better tools to help understand how a human body acts and reacts to vehicle crash dynamics, which has resulted in incremental gains in seat belt design.

For example, today seat belt webbing can be manufactured to stretch at a controlled rate to help soften the human load following a frontal impact. Also, by the addition pyrotechnic pre-tensioning technology, slack in the belt can be reduced milliseconds after impact, thereby helping to position the occupant properly for an impending crash. With the seat belt designs of today, when used in combination with a frontal airbag, vehicle occupants have never been better protected. Of course, seat belts must be worn for the driver and passengers to get the benefit of this research and technology.


Just to play it safe, Tom Ripley, a frequent contributor to Driving Today, wore a seat belt while writing this story. He covers the world automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

Americans Favor Safety

Those who are not in favor of motherhood, baseball and apple pie, please raise your hands. Nope, I'm not seeing a lot of hands go up there in cyberland. (By the way, our hidden cameras allow us to see each and every one of you 24 hours a day. You knew that, didn't you?)

Now those of you who are dead-set against auto safety, please raise your hand. Oh my, still very few hands being raised. You see what we're getting at here. The fact of the matter is just about all of us, except for some random sociopaths, are strongly in favor of driving safety. But just how strongly that feeling goes was revealed recently by a Louis Harris poll commissioned by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health, safety, insurance and law enforcement organizations. The study is the fourth independent Harris survey gauging the American public's views on crucial highway and vehicle safety concerns, and it showed a strong desire for a number of safety-related initiatives, some of them controversial.

First, let's eyeball the problem. You might not realize this, but motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death of Americans aged one to 34. Over the past decade, highway deaths have been stuck at more than 40,000 annually, with a slight increase in 2000 versus 1999. Last year, 41,800 people were killed in highway crashes, up from 41,611 the year prior. While highway deaths in general held about steady, deaths of young drivers aged 16 to 20 years went up from 3,481 in 1999 to 3,570 in 2000, and rollover deaths of sport utility vehicle occupants rose from 1,898 in 1999 to 1,951 in 2000. This, of course, must be viewed in the context of the millions of drivers and passengers who travel on our roads and highways every day, which means your individual likelihood of being involved in a fatal accident are slim. Yet no one could call 40,000 deaths per year incidental.

So what does the American public want to do about this? According to the Harris Poll, Americans strongly favor child booster seat laws, cell phone restrictions in cars, adequate safeguards for Mexican trucks, red light camera technology and intersection safety upgrades, improved vehicle rollover standards, and other federal regulatory reforms. In other words, there is a laundry list of changes Americans would be willing to make to increase their motoring safety.

Among the survey's key findings from a cross-section of U.S. adults (18 years and older):
  • Nearly 80% of the public favors state laws requiring children between the ages of four and eight years of age to be properly restrained in a booster seat while riding in a motor vehicle. More than 500 children are killed and another 100,000 injured in this age group each year in traffic crashes.

  • Some 78% of the public wants more attention paid to improving intersection safety. And, despite heated debates across the nation, state laws to allow the use of red light cameras as a law enforcement supplement are still favored by more than a 2-to-1 majority of the public (69%).

  • A full 76% of Americans favor legislation that would restrict the use of cell phones while driving, and 83% want more attention paid to the issue of cell phone use by drivers.

  • With the U.S. border soon to be opened for unrestricted travel by Mexican trucks as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a nearly unanimous 94% of the American people oppose such access without the proper U.S. safety inspections.

  • More than 70% of the population is concerned about the dangers of rollovers in vehicles. In addition, 85% of Americans favor a federal rollover standard.

  • By large majorities, the public wants enforced restrictions placed on young drivers before and initially after they receive their licenses. There is nearly unanimous support for teenage drivers to complete at least 30 to 50 hours of practice driving while with an adult (95%). In addition, a three-to-one majority (74% to 23%) supports limiting the number of teen passengers in the car with a teen driver.
Just how these results will translate into political action remains to be seen, but let there be no doubt that Americans are in favor of safety and willing to make efforts to increase it.


A self-proclaimed safe driver, Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini writes on a number of auto-related issues for several publications.

Should States Require Motorcycle Helmets?

There was an old joke about a former President who was said to have played too much football without a helmet. These days there has been a groundswell of support for the repeal of mandatory helmet laws in several states, and, after looking at the objective data, one must wonder how often proponents of that policy have played without their helmets.

Michigan is the latest state to look at repealing its mandatory helmet law. A state House bill sponsored by Rep. Gene DeRossett (R-Manchester), would remove the mandatory helmet requirement for all riders and passengers 21 years of age or older. The bill was immediately met with harsh criticism from safety experts, including those from the American Automobile Association.

"This bill just doesn't make sense," said Richard J. Miller, manager of Community Safety Services for AAA Michigan. "The evidence in support of helmet use is overwhelming. Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes. Riders who don't wear helmets and who experience a crash are 40 percent more likely to sustain a fatal head injury."

AAA Michigan's position is backed up by strong data from both the Federal General Accounting Office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The GAO reviewed 46 studies of motorcycle helmets and helmet laws and reported helmeted riders have up to a 73 percent lower fatality rate than unhelmeted riders. In addition, helmeted riders have up to an 85 percent reduced incidence of severe, serious, and critical injuries than unhelmeted riders. The GAO concluded, "Because there is convincing evidence that helmets save lives and reduce society's burden of caring for injured riders, Congress may wish to consider encouraging states to enact and retain universal helmet laws."

In its Report to Congress: Benefits of Safety Belts and Motorcycle Helmets, the NHTSA confirmed the GAO's opinion. It found motorcycle helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries, and unhelmeted motorcyclists are over three times as likely to suffer a brain injury as were those who are helmeted.

"When I had my motorcycle crash and suffered my head injury, it changed my life and it took a huge toll on my family," said Doug Wilson, a motorcycle crash victim from Maryland. "If anyone has the opportunity to reduce the number of head injuries, I would personally urge them to do whatever they can to spare another person from this ordeal."

When you look at the data compiled after Arkansas and Texas repealed their mandatory helmet use laws, you would be hard-pressed not to agree with Wilson's assessment. In 1997, Arkansas and Texas became the first states since 1983 to repeal "universal" laws requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Helmet use under the universal law was 97 percent in statewide surveys (1996 in Arkansas and 1997 in Texas). By May of 1998, observed helmet use had fallen to 52 percent in Arkansas and to 66 percent in Texas.

With the decline in helmet use came injuries to unhelmeted riders. Arkansas EMS data showed an increase in the number of motorcyclists with head injuries, while Texas Trauma Registry data showed that the proportion of cases involving head injury increased and that the cost per case of treating head injury increased substantially after the law change.

As to the bottom line, after the repeal of the mandatory helmet law in Arkansas, motorcycle operator fatalities were 21 percent higher in 1998 than in 1996, and in Texas, motorcycle operator fatalities were 31 percent higher in 1998 (after the repeal) than in 1996 (when the law required mandatory helmet use).

"Motorcycle riders are much more at risk than persons driving or riding in a passenger vehicle," said the AAA's Miller. "In fact, more than 80 percent of all motorcycle crashes result in injury or death to the motorcyclist."

Isn't in the best interest of all of us to protect those motorcycle riders with helmets?


Driving Today editor Jack R. Nerad is a former motorcycle rider who lost one of his high school friends to a motorcycle accident.

The Other Side of Cell Phone Safety

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the dangers of cellular telephone use in automobiles. The state of New York recently required that cell phone callers use a hands-free device or risk citation, while others are calling for even greater restrictions including the complete ban on cell phone use while driving. Certainly, there are compelling reasons to look long and hard at cellular telephones in automobiles, but critics of the devices might be overlooking an important fact: properly used, a cell phone can be a crucial safety tool.

No one knows this better than Steven Wayne Elmore. Two years ago, Elmore and his entire family were nearly killed when a drunk driver struck them. Then, this past October, his heart sank when he realized he was driving behind a car that was swerving erratically, and he became even more alarmed as he watched the driver toss a beer bottle out of the window.

Not wanting another tragedy to strike, Elmore grabbed his wireless phone, dialed 911 and was connected with the police. The 911 operator asked Elmore to describe the car and also to stay with the vehicle to relay location points. Minutes later, the police pulled behind the drunk driver and ordered him to the side of the road. The call Elmore made on his wireless phone may have prevented the injury or death of several individuals that night.

Elmore's emergency call was not an isolated incident. In fact, the volume of emergencies reported by wireless phones is mind-boggling. Every day, nearly 140,000 such calls are placed. That's 96 calls per minute.

One key to safe use of cellular phones while driving is individual responsibility. The driver should take a commonsense approach to the use of a wireless phone and err on the side of caution when in doubt.

If you are going to place a call while you are driving, ask yourself, "Is this the right time to make a call?" And, "Will this call distract me from my primary responsibility to drive safely?"

If, after answering these questions, you decide that a call while driving is appropriate and safe, follow these basic dos and don'ts:
  • Let the person you are talking with know you're driving
  • Keep the call short
  • Use a hands-free device and speed dial to place calls
  • Never take notes or look up phone numbers while driving
  • Never use your phone in heavy traffic or hazardous conditions
  • Let voicemail pick-up if you have any concerns about the safety of answering the phone
Remember when you are driving an automobile, your primary responsibility is to drive that vehicle safely. Each time you slip behind the wheel, the lives of others are dependent upon the decisions you make. Wireless telephones used while driving can be safe...and in some instances they can even save lives. Don't let your phone be an excuse to drive irresponsibly; make it a reason to drive safely and intelligently at all times.


The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), an international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, contributed information to this story.

Luigi Fraschini, a Cleveland-based automotive journalist, has written many pieces on auto safety.

Protect Your Vehicle From Storm Damage

Though an alarm probably didn't go off on your bedside table recently to signal its beginning, we are officially in the midst of hurricane season. For people who live on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, that means a storm with 100-mile-an-hour winds could blow up at any moment, and while our hurricane warning systems are now very advanced, making deaths and injuries far less likely than in earlier decades, sudden, damaging winds and rain squalls can still play havoc with people's lives and property. One largely untold result of a serious hurricane is the devastating damage wrought on vehicles abandoned in the face of the storm.

The key to protecting yourself, your family and your vehicles in a hurricane is preparation. If your hometown is in the hurricane zone, you should ask yourself: are you prepared to evacuate? In the face of threatening weather, it's easy to forget about safeguarding your vehicle, but that car, minivan or sport-utility vehicle might become your most important lifeline.

"Preparing your home and ensuring your personal safety are more important than saving a vehicle, but you can minimize damage with a few precautions," said Bob Rose, general manager for Progressive, one of the nation's largest auto insurers.

Driving Today and Progressive offer these tips for drivers who might be affected by an impending hurricane or tropical storm:
  • Prepare to leave the area and leave well before the storm hits. It's natural to want to stay and protect your property in the face of a storm, but such acts of courage often turn deadly. Winds can become dangerously strong well before the storm comes ashore, so as you make final preparations, keep your vehicles away from trees, telephone poles, carports and other objects that may be under stress from high winds.

  • Fill 'er up. Fill your vehicle with gasoline as soon as possible to avoid the long lines that could delay your departure to safety.

  • Take important documents. Place your auto/home insurance documents, vehicle registration and title in a waterproof bag and take them with you.

  • Plan for the trip. Bring a flashlight and extra batteries, a first-aid kit, cash and credit cards, water and food. Remember, you could end up spending substantial amounts of time in your vehicle.

  • Prepare in advance. Pick up a hurricane planning guide/map or listen to the radio to identify your evacuation route, secure your property and head for safer ground before the storm hits.

  • Beware of live wires as you drive away from the danger of the storm. Do not, under any circumstances, drive over a downed electrical line.

  • Remember that flooded streets can be deadly. Do not drive on a road submerged in water; underlying currents could carry your vehicle away or you could encounter a dangerous sinkhole. If your vehicle stalls in water, immediately abandon it -- floodwaters can rise several feet in a matter of minutes. Don't try to start or move a flooded vehicle; you could cause more damage than the water already has.

  • Call your insurance company immediately to report a claim once you have reached safety.
With these tips in mind, you and your vehicles can survive the ravages of summer storms and hurricanes.


Auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has survived a Florida hurricane, keeping both his life and his vehicle intact.