1974: Seat Belt Starter Interlocks Piss Off More People Than Watergate Scandal

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

While I do think that the early 1990s produced some great cars, the US government-mandated automatically-deployed shoulder belts of the era (for vehicles without then-optional airbags) were utterly maddening. When the mechanisms went bad— as they often did— you had no shoulder belt or, perhaps even worse, a belt that deployed and retracted constantly during a drive; I experienced this once in a Mazda 323 and was hoping for a quick, painless nuclear war to remove me from the planet by the end of the drive. However, the American driving public had become mostly pro-seat-belt by that time, what with the debunking of the “you want to be thrown clear from the wreck” myth, and public outcry over automatic belts was limited to some minor grumbling. This was most definitely not in 1974, when all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States featured DOT-mandated interlocks that prevented engine starting unless driver and front-passenger belts were fastened; widespread outrage blowtorched the ears off of every congressman in the country, and the House killed the starter-interlock requirement late in the year.

I was 8 years old at the time, and because my parents had no ’74 model-year vehicles (having purchased a ’72 Chevrolet Beauville passenger van and a pair of ’73 Fiat 128s just before the fateful year) I wasn’t aware of the starter-interlock feature; I do, however, recall the godawful seat-belt buzzers in the Fiats, which would be triggered whenever the car hit a bump (my horror/fascination with such buzzers led to an unfortunately incident with the Alameda County Bomb Squad about a decade later). It was when I started driving and wrenching on terrible beater cars in the early 1980s that I encountered the nightmare of the starter interlock; most of my car-equipped peers were driving hand-me-down Malaise Era subcompacts— Colts, Pintos, Corollas, and Vegas were most popular, because their parents had been counting the minutes until they could finally pawn off those much-loathed heaps on the young’uns— and I had to hot-wire around the interlocks in a couple of my friends’ 1974 machines to get them to start at all. Mike Davis wrote up a pretty readable piece on the subject for The Detroit Bureau, but I suggest slogging through this dry-as-Mojave-sand academic piece on the subject. The numbers paint a vivid picture: 7% of drivers of buzzer-equipped 1973 vehicles in the study wore lap and shoulder belts, while 48% in the ’74 vehicles buckled up… and, no doubt, plotted revolution (the other 52% must have gone straight to their mechanics and had their interlock systems disabled, or else they unfastened their belts as soon as the engine got going). So, what do we learn from this? Nanny-state big government forcing their evil plans down the throats of the population, with Brezhnev and Nader chuckling evilly in the background? Or a population too goddamn stupid to protect themselves? Both?

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Moparman426W Moparman426W on Feb 15, 2011

    My dad bought a new 75 ford wagon with the starter interlock. As soon as he got it home he reached under the seat and unplugged the connector, disabling it. A person had to pretty much be a moron to not know how to do it.

  • VanillaDude VanillaDude on Feb 15, 2011

    My father required that we use seat belts back in 1967. So, I didn't have to be coerced. That said, my experience with belts ran the gamit of being forced to deal with separate shoulder belts and extra buckles in some older cars. There was no tentioners back then. The auto companies met the letter of the seat belt laws without actually embracing them. As a seat belt wearer, it was impractical to use older seat belts, but I alwasy felt naked without one. I never had a 1974 car. So I was spared the impracticality of the interlock system. Considering the quality of that era of cars, they probably weren't very good. Starting your car is important, so crafting a system that could disable it is not a smart thing to do. Once again, government politics fail in the real world. Blaming people or claiming that they are either stupid or ignorant is rather stupid and ignorant. Grouping everyone is always wrong as a general rule. Daily life does not fit what academics believe it fits, usually. Blaming your neighbors for not accepting government edits exposes you as someone who may not completely understand the liberties and freedoms you enjoy. Seat belts improved with the three point belts. It made using them a lot simpler. I believe this was probably the best way of dealing with the need for drivers to buckle up. I also think this was the break through that increased seat belt usage, not mandatory seat belt laws. It takes a generation of usage and when you look at a generation ago, you see the modern three point belt as the break through. Automatic seat belts were horrible. The GM design was based on an outdated method proposed for Chevrolet Vegas. I found it unbelievable that GM had the nerve to put those archaic useless door mounted belts in their cars. It was simply irresponsible. Seat belts are supposed to keep you in the car if the door opens. GM must have gotten some kind of deal with the federal government for it to so obviously fail to meet this basic standard of safety. The GM belts were supposed to remain BUCKLED, and we were supposed to finaggle our way into the car with the belts stretched out from the doors and into our seats without having the belts tangle up around our legs. The design was a sham and should not have been allowed. The automatic belts were not automatic - only the shoulder belt was automatic. You still had to buckle the lap belt manually. This was worse than the pre-automatic belt days because the design was overcomplicated and failed to work too often to have been manufacturered. What happened here was the need for the auto manufacturers to meet once again the letter of the federal standards, but not the intention behind the standards. It would have been better had the federal government mandated that new cars phase air bags into production over a three year's time, leaving the superior manual three point belts in the cars. The Feds blew it again. Their regulations failed to meet up with reality. Instead of creating a common sense approach, they forced upon everyone a subpar seat belt design to replace what was a better seat belt design previously manufacturered. The Feds forced all of us to take a step back. I never had a problem with mandatory seat belt laws, because I always buckled up. However, after forcing all of us to endure the extra costs of air bags and seat belts, the government finally got around to mandating seat belt usage when it could have mandated seat belt usage decades earlier and prevented all these extra costs. Thanks to the Feds, we ended up with the most costly way of mandating seat belt usage. We now use belts while surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of air bags adding to the total costs for everyone. STUPID! That said, although I am obvioulsy pro-seat belt, I do not believe there is a real reason to force drivers to wear them. Pointing out that we use roads is inaccurate, because government doesn't fund roads - WE DO! Governments are merely an organizational tool for the majority of the road building. The government has NO MONEY. It uses OUR MONEY. So that argument is specious. Just because most of our roads are built under government organization, does not mean that this same organization has the ability of legislating good rules for the road. Just because an auto manufacturer may reside in the US and pay US taxes, (when they are forced to), doesn't mean that the same organization is capable of knowing how to build cars or know how to tell drivers how to drive. That is foolish. We have witnessed a lifetime of government incompetence. Belief in following government edits has been discredited so completely I believe we are seeing a new era where citizens start demanding that we be re-empowered to do what we do best.

  • Ronin Let's see the actuals first, then we can decide using science.What has been the effect of auto pollution levels since the 70s when pollution control devices were first introduced? Since the 80s when they were increased?How much has auto pollution specifically been reduced since the introduction of hybrid vehicles? Of e-vehicles?We should well be able to measure the benefits by now, by category of engine. We shouldn't have to continue to just guess the benefits. And if we can't specifically and in detail measure the benefits by now, it should make a rational person wonder if there really are any real world benefits.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Simply put, I like it.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Ah GM, never stop being you. GM is working hard to make FIAT look good.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Top Gear of the 2000's was a fresh concept and very well done. Sadly to say there isn't a TV show concept that doesn't eventually exhaust fresh ideas and, as a result, begins to rehash and wear out once were fresh ideas. The show eventually becomes a pale imitation of itself, then begins to embarrass itself, it will get to a point where it jumps the shark. Top Gear began to get stale, the Clarkson, Hammond and May left and the formula failed - surprise! the presenters were part of the magic. Fast forward many years and Grand Tower is trying hard to be Top Gear but it's all very obviously scripted (it always was by felt spontaneous in its original form), Clarkson, Hammond and May are much older, tired and have become caricatures of themselves. Guys, just stop. You should have stopped 10 years ago. Now you're just screwing with your reputations and legacies.
  • FreedMike Kudos to Toyota for making a legitimately slick looking piece (particularly in metallic cherry red). But PHEVs seem like a very narrow niche to me. Yes, the concept is cool - if you play your cards right you never have to fill up with gas, and the gas engine means you don't have to worry about charging facilities - but the operative words are "if you play your cards right." And PHEVs have all the drawbacks of EVs - spotty charging availability, decreased range in cold conditions, and higher price. Personally, I'd opt for a non plug-in Prius and use the plug-in money to upgrade the trim level. It's slower, but even the base Prius performs roughly on par with a Corolla or Civic, so it's not a dog anymore. But who buys a Prius to go fast in the first place? If I wanted to "go gas free," I'd just buy a BEV. YMMV, of course.