Old curmudgeons like me like to talk about how much freedom children had when we were young. We had less supervision, more responsibilities, and the freedom to come and go that our children and grandchildren can scarcely imagine. But there is one area we check ourselves. When someone says, "When I was a kid, we didn't even have seat belts, or laws that said you had to use them, or airbags." The next line should be "...and we turned out fine," but we stop because we all know at least one kid who didn't turn out fine, who isn't here to relive those memories. Many childhood dangers are overblown, but traffic accidents are still the most common cause of death for youngsters.
And now Ford has what they believe is a better idea. Inflatable seat belts for back seat passengers have been in testing for eight years, and will be an option on the 2011 Ford Explorer. The device is a combination of seat belts and airbags, like the inflatable seat belts used on some airplanes. The belts do not inflate unless the front or side airbags are deployed. The advantages of such a system are that it eliminates the danger to children that front-seat style airbags pose, because the bags are already fitted around the child's chest area. They also cover a larger area, whether deployed or not, which will spread the force of an impact and cause less injury from the belt itself than conventional seat belts. And the inflatable belts are more comfortable than conventional belts, which may lead more back seat passengers to buckle up.
Ford says that the system will be available on other models soon after its debut in their new model Explorer. Sure, you can expect the seat belts to add to the vehicle's price, but safety features are worth it even if they are never used, especially compared to other options on which we spend hundreds of dollars.
Update: Wes Sherwood of Ford Motor Company appeared in the comments to address some concerns.
The rear inflatable belts deploy sideaways and away from the occupant with cold gas technology. Since the belt already is on the occupant, the inflatable belt will deploy slower than traditional air bags that use different gases to deploy the air bags quick enough to make up the distance from the occupant.
We recommend customers use the LATCH anchors -- standard in all of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury North American vehicles -- to restrain child seats as recommended by the U.S. government. We also tested the new rear inflatable seat belts in many ways, including with a variety of front- and rear-facing child seats and booster seats, and did not find any cause for concern. We even tested a crash dummy that simulated a child sleeping with their head on the seat belt as the inflatable belt deploys and found no issues.
The inflatable belts will not deploy if they're not buckled. However, there is no on/off switch because we have not seen in our testing a situation that would require such a feature.
Ford currently offers seat sensing technology in the front passenger seat, not rear seats.
Thank you again for the opportunity to join the discussion.