I am in the market for a new car and...

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Dec 01, 1994

Dear Tom and Ray:

I am in the market for a new car and have been reading up on different makes. Since I'm buying new, I want the safety features of front wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and two air bags. But every car I was interested in had door mounted seat belts or seat belts with motorized shoulder harnesses. In the different articles I read, they advised against both of these contraptions. How important is this?

TOM: It's very important, Marie. And the articles you read were absolutely right. You shouldn't buy a car with either of these systems.

RAY: And the blame for these lousy systems lies both with the car manufacturers AND the federal government. When they wrote the law in the 1980s, instead of requiring "air bags" in all vehicles, the feds wimped-out and called for "passive restraints" instead. And both of these seat belt systems qualify as "passive restraints," even though they both have serious potential safety problems.

TOM: A seat belt that's bolted to the door is no good, because if your door opens during a crash, you're not belted! And in fact, you could be ejected right out of the car. According to John White, the automotive writer for the Boston Globe, that's exactly how a New Hampshire State Trooper was killed.

RAY: The "motorized" shoulder harnesses have problems in the real world as well. First of all, only half of the belt is motorized. So people get the mistaken impression that they're belted in when they're really not. And it's very easy to forget to fasten the lap belt when you see the shoulder harness across your chest. And what happens if you wear just the shoulder belt without the lap belt? Well, as your lap slides forward during an accident, the shoulder belt restrains you...by your neck!

TOM: The other problem with motorized shoulder harnesses is that they're really annoying. They're always in the way, and a lot of people just disconnect them. And for obvious reasons, a disconnected seat belt doesn't do you much good in an accident, either.

RAY: So the only cars you should consider are cars with traditional, three-point seat belts mounted to the B-pillar (the metal pillar behind the driver's window), and at least one air bag....preferably two air bags these days.

TOM: And don't let the dealers of these cars pooh-pooh these safety concerns. THEY may not care what happens to you after you pay for the car, but we do (our editor says we need ALL the readers we can get, Marie).

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One