Are automatic power locks a federally mandated safety feature?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 1992

Dear Tom and Ray:

The company I work for recently issued me a 1992 Cutlass as a company car. Now, I don't want to complain. The last company I worked for considered door handles an option. This is a decent car, but I have one problem that I can't get a straight answer on. When you put the car in gear the doors lock automatically. The dealer tells me that it is a federal safety feature, but the more expensive models don't have it. I am tired of watching my customers try to claw their way out of a door that they didn't lock. My wife says it's the bachelor model. The dealer tells me he cannot bypass the system. Tell me the truth. Can the system be bypassed, and why does our federal government just want to protect the midsized car buyer?

RAY: I have a question for YOU, Kip. When the dealer told you he couldn't disconnect this thing because it was a federal safety feature, was he wearing a top hat and tails? Because that's a song and dance if I've ever heard one.

TOM: The automatic locks ARE related to safety. The doors contribute to the structural integrity of the car. So if you had a catastrophic accident and your car rolled over, the closed doors would help keep the roof from collapsing on top of you. And locking the doors increases the chances that they will stay closed in that kind of accident.

RAY: But there's another side to that argument. There are certain types of accident situations in which you wouldn't want the doors locked--a situation in which you might need to get out of the car, or someone might need to GET YOU out of the car. If it's night time, a passenger who is unfamiliar with your car would very likely not be able to find that tiny little switch that unlocks the doors.

TOM: In fact, we test drive all brand new cars. And there have been many evenings when I've missed "Home Improvement" on television because I was sitting out in my driveway in the dark trying to figure out how to get out of the car I was driving. It's gotten so bad that my wife now has a standing policy. If I'm not home by the late news, she sends one of the kids out with a flashlight and some sandwiches.

RAY: Having said that, I'm sure that having the doors locked will save more lives than having them unlocked. But it would be nice if the manufacturers would design the doors so that they could always be opened from the inside, whether they were locked or not. If they did that, I'd have no objection to the automatic locks, and it sounds like you wouldn't either, Kip.

TOM: But to answer your question, it's NOT a federal requirement, and the automatic locks CAN be disconnected. There's got to be a wire that runs from the transmission to the door locks, and if you're dealer won't take off his coat and tails and slide under the car and disconnect it for you, I'm sure you can find another mechanic who will.

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