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Ford clicking its belt

Ford offers new safety belt

August 25, 2006, Dearborn, MI

U.S. vehicle fatalities last year reached their lowest levels since 1994, according to a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study.

The decline comes at a time when overall safety belt usage rates have been improving every year in the U.S. and are now at 82 percent.

Safety belts remain the most important vehicle safety technology, according to Ford safety experts.

In addition to making more standard safety equipment available on 2007 model year products, Ford is researching several new safety belt designs for the future, including four-point safety belts and inflatable safety belts, aiming to help further reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries.DEARBORN, Mich., Aug. 29 – Responding to the changing demographics of today’s driving population, Ford Motor Company is researching two advanced next-generation safety belt technologies that could help further reduce the number of annual vehicle fatalities, which are at their lowest levels since 1994.

One of Ford’s possible next-generation safety belts incorporates a four-point “belt and suspenders” design in lieu of the familiar three-point safety belt, while a second possible future safety belt incorporates an airbag directly into the belt itself.”A number of technical challenges still need to be overcome before implementing these restraint systems,” said Dr. Priya Prasad, Ford Technical Fellow for Safety. “If we are successful in implementing these technologies, we will be redefining the nature of future occupant restraint systems.”

Ford’s cutting-edge research into these 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, while improving the most effective safety technology in a vehicle – the safety belt.

“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,” Prasad says. “That’s why we’re working hard to further improve safety belt and restraint technologies in the future – and offering more standard safety features in our 2007 model year products.”

Safety Comes Standard

As part of the company’s overall drive to further improve customer value and deliver safety innovation, Ford is adding side airbags and air curtains as standard equipment in many of its vehicles.

Driver and front-safety passenger-side airbags are standard equipment on the Ford Explorer XLT, the Ford Explorer Sport Trac and the Lincoln Town Car.

New for the 2007 model year, Ford has made side air curtains or it’s advanced Safety Canopy system with rollover sensor standard equipment on 14 vehicles:

1. Ford Fusion
2. Ford Five Hundred
3. Ford Freestyle
4. Ford Expedition (new)
5. Ford Expedition EL (all new)
6. Ford Edge (all new)
7. Ford Explorer (Eddie Bauer and Limited)
8. Mercury Milan
9. Mercury Montego
10. Mercury Mountaineer
11. Lincoln MKX (all new)
12. Lincoln MKZ
13. Lincoln Navigator (new)
14. Lincoln Navigator L (all new)

The 2006 Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego with the Safety Canopy air curtain system earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest “Top Safety Pick-Gold” rating after achieving the highest ratings in the rear, frontal-offset and side-impact crash protection.

Ford Leading the Way

In addition to offering more standard safety features in its vehicles, Ford is continuing its pioneering work on two possible next-generation safety belt technologies. Ford first introduced seat belts in 1955 while Volvo introduced the three-point belt in 1959. Ford was the first automaker to offer safety belts as standard equipment in 1964.

Today, Ford again is leading the way with a four-point “belt and suspenders” design in lieu of the familiar three-point safety belt. The other, an inflatable belt, incorporates an airbag directly into the safety belt itself.

Inflatable Safety Belt

As its name suggests, the inflatable rear safety belt fills with air during a crash, enhancing protection for rear-seat passengers.

A strap of airbag material is hidden in the seat belt webbing. The strap inflates into a cylindrical shape when frontal airbags deploy. These inflatable belts spread forces from a vehicle crash over a broader section of the body than traditional, two-inch-wide safety belts, helping to reduce the pressure on the chest and helping to control the motion of the head and neck.

Early studies have shown that the inflatable belt may be effective for enhancing the protection of the occupants in the rear seat, including children and the elderly. When not inflated, the thicker safety belt was actually judged to be more comfortable than a standard safety belt in consumer clinics because it felt like it was padded.

Ford showed a version of its inflatable safety belt system in the Ford Reflex concept at the Detroit auto show in January. The Reflex is a technological showcase with its advanced diesel-electric hybrid engine, solar panels and flexible interior made from synthetic and regenerated materials.

The concept underscored Ford’s intent to offer bold, American designs regardless of vehicle size.

Four-Point Safety Belt

Recent customer research showed Ford scientists and engineers 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.

These insights came after a round of testing Ford’s exclusive 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 which buckles at the center of the waist.

People of various shapes and sizes evaluated the new belts, which were developed and refined after more than 5,000 consumers provided feedback on 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 scientists are using their feedback – and the correlating data – to refine safety belts of the future.

The Right Fit

Safety belt comfort is particularly important. The more comfortable they’re perceived to be, the more likely vehicle occupants are to wear them.

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 82 to 90 percent.

In addition to working with consumers when designing and researching several different safety belt systems, Ford’s safety engineers use a computer program that electronically tests fits safety belts to virtual mannequins of different body shapes and sizes.

This Computer-Aided Design (CAD)-based predictive model helps to refine belt placement before crash testing is carried out with dummies.

Further, Ford is using a new family of crash test dummies to help refine future safety belt proposals. New THOR dummies feature new technology that allows scientists to measure crash forces exerted in four areas of the chest. The previous generation of dummies – called Hybrid III dummies – allowed scientists to measure crash forces on only one area – the center of the chest.

Mapping how crash forces will spread across a vehicle occupant’s chest is important, Prasad says. For instance, robust four-point safety belt designs should help more evenly distribute crash energy, reducing the amount that’s distributed to any single part of the chest.

This innovation is especially important for the aging population, he said.

For instance, the chest of a 65-year-old has 72 percent less crash tolerance for belt forces than someone in the 16-35 age group. All people – but women especially – tend to lose bone strength with age. Elderly occupants involved in crashes also frequently face more medical complications from injuries such as rib fractures – which can compromise their deep breathing – than younger occupants do. The design of the four-point safety belt helps all of these age groups because it more evenly distributes crash energy in an accident.

While the four-point safety belt currently is not allowed by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, Ford Motor Company so far holds two patents for the new technology and more are expected to follow. In addition, Ford is working with lawmakers to demonstrate the benefits of this new four-point safety belt technology.

Making it click

To further boost safety belt usage, Ford continues offering its proprietary BeltMinder system.
This is important because each percentage point increase in safety belt use is estimated to save an additional 300 lives a year, according to U.S. government statistics.

Introduced at no cost to customers in 1999 and installed millions of Ford Motor Company vehicles, the BeltMinder system is a safety belt reminder technology that takes over after the initial federally required safety belt reminder stops chiming.

“Our BeltMinder technology helps remind customers to buckle up,” said Prasad. “It’s a simple reminder that can make a great difference in saving lives.”

If the driver remains unbuckled, the system chimes and flashes a warning lamp for six seconds every 30 seconds for five minutes or until the driver buckles up, whichever comes first. By 2007, Ford’s BeltMinder system will be expanded to include right front-passengers on additional vehicles as a part of the company’s Personal Safety System.

Ford also has licensed its BeltMinder technology to four other vehicle manufacturers at no cost.

Data show that BeltMinder works. Research conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showed that safety belt use was five percentage points higher in vehicles with BeltMinder.

“Our goal at Ford Motor Company is to keep finding ways to enhance the safety systems in our vehicles,” Prasad said. “We plan on continuing our pioneering work to make our vehicles even safer in the future.”

Lou Ann Hammond

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a founding member of the Women's World Car of the Year #WWCOTY, and board member of the Women in Automotive.

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