Ford eyeballing 4-Point Safety Belts

To many people the expression "belt-and-suspenders" is a classic description of overkill - doing more than is necessary. But new advances in seatbelt design might mean that the belt-and-suspenders approach won't kill, but instead will save lives. Responding to the changing demographics (read aging) of today's driving population, Ford Motor Company is researching advanced, next-generation safety belt technology that incorporates a four-point design much like the proverbial belt and suspenders in lieu of the familiar three-point safety belt. The goal is to help further reduce the number of annual vehicle fatalities, which are at their lowest levels since 1994.

"Even with the variety of advanced features and technologies offered on today's vehicles, the single most important piece of safety technology in a car or truck today remains the safety belt," said Dr. Priya Prasad, Ford Technical Fellow for Safety. "That's why we're working hard to further improve safety belt and restraint technologies in the future."

Ford's research into this new safety belt designs is being driven in part by the company's desire to meet the needs of an aging driving population and their changing physiology. Government research shows that more than 2,000 lives could be saved and thousands of injuries could be prevented annually if the nationwide safety belt use rates climbed from the current rate of about 82 percent to 90 percent. Recent customer research has revealed  that consumers perceive four-point belts to be safer as well as more comfortable and, depending on their design, easier to use than traditional three-point belts. So they might spur increased use.

These insights came after a round of testing Ford's prototype belt system with thousands of customers and employees of all demographics and sizes, soliciting input from both a static safety belt display and from drivers of a Mustang Cobra especially equipped with a prototype four-point safety belt system that buckles at the center of the waist, not unlike your pants. People of various shapes and sizes evaluated the new belts, which were developed and refined after more than 5,000 consumers provided feedback of various safety belt systems demonstrated at U.S. and European auto shows. In the latest round of customer research, consumers are assessing ease of use, comfort and their likelihood to buckle up on a regular basis. Ford engineers are using their feedback -- and the correlating data -- to refine safety belts of the future. While the four-point safety belt currently is not allowed by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, Ford is working with lawmakers to demonstrate the benefits of this new four-point safety belt technology in hopes that the regulations might be changed.

"A number of technical challenges still need to be overcome before implementing these restraint systems," Prasad said. "If we are successful in implementing these technologies, we will be redefining the nature of future occupant restraint systems."

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley, who writes about the auto industry and the human condition, has a great deal of experience with restraints.