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Vintage Car Safety News: ‘GM to Offer Air Bags as Option on Some ’74 Cars’

These days, airbags are a major part of car safety, but it wasn’t always that way. Back when car production began, there was no protection from an accident like an airbag would provide. Even then, when the airbag was created, there was pushback from drivers.

Ford Motors didn’t agree to airbags’ benefits due to the newly designed interlock lap belt system, but others disagreed.

Airbags would cost $200 for the year 1975

The New York Times shared an article from the archive that demonstrates just how far we have come with car safety features. Back in 1974, airbags were not a standard feature in most cars.

This article, dated August 1, 1974, noted that the Vice President of General Motors, Ernest S. Starkman, spoke to the Senate Commerce Committee about adding airbags as an option to most cars around the start of 1975.

In this meeting, staff members from Allstate Insurance Company, Ford Motors, and Chrysler Motors spoke about the value that airbags provide drivers.

The air bag is designed to inflate in a front‐end crash, providing an air pillow that cushions the impact for occupants of the front seat. A Federal safety standard, as now written, would require passive restraint system, such as air bags, to be installed in all motor vehicles by the 1976 model year.”

New York Times

Starkman also noted that the airbag feature would cost around $200. This would be available on most Cadillacs, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles in production the next year.

Not everyone was a fan of the idea

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Fred G. Segrist was the Vice President of Ford Motor Company and spoke at the same event. Segrist noted that lap and shoulder belts were a more effective solution to preventing fatalities for both drivers and passengers.

He claimed that these prevented people from being thrown from the car. At that time, the Department of Transportation estimated that around 25% of people were wearing the safety and lap belts that were recommended.

Segrist said that with the newly implemented interlock lap/shoulder belt system coming out later that year, more people would be prone to wearing them. This interlock system prevented the car from starting until all of the occupants were buckled in.

He also compared his new interlock seatbelt system price to that of the airbags. The interlock system would run about $90, compared to around $125 in the Fords.

“The individual who will wear his belts would be deprived of the opportunity for substantially more protection and, at the same time, would pay more than double the price,”

Fred G. Segrist | Vice President of Ford Motor Company

Allstate stood by the statistics: airbags would reduce deaths and injuries from auto accidents by anywhere from 25% to 35%. Jack Martens, Allstate’s automotive engineering director, said that this system works despite the “occupants’ apathy.”

Car safety: Seat belts vs. air bags

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In other words, you do not need to believe in using an airbag like you would a seatbelt. It could automatically save your life in case of an accident instead of perhaps benefitting you should you wear your interlock seat belt system.

He went on to say that the interlock system was easily defeat-able by those who do not want to wear it. Martens also said he felt that the airbag systems’ production would eventually win, even if it did cost a bit more.

Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana claimed that he did not care which side of the argument won, as long as it brought down the death rate. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn who wins so that they bring down the death toll.”