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