Video: Ford unveils inflatable seat belts

  1. Closed captioning of: Ford unveils inflatable seat belts

    >>> sleeping in parking garages.

    >>> back at 7:44 with a major innovation designed to keep car passengers, especially kids, safer in the back seat. today, ford is unveiling inflatable seatbelts. cnbc's phil lebeau is at the ford lab in dearborn, michigan. good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning, meredith. inflatable seatbelts look like regular seatbelts until there's a crash and then the airbags deploy. this is what they'll look like after they deploy in a crash. the idea is better protection for people in the second and third rows, particularly children, because many people don't realize that kids up to the age of 8, when they graduate out of their booster seats to regular seatbelts, the very belts that are supposed to protect them can actually cause great harm. a trip for new school clothes turned tragic for brin duncan.

    >> it was just a fight to keep her alive.

    >> reporter: just over a year ago, then 7-year-old brin was buckled in the back seat of her grandma's car when they crashed.

    >> it bound her kidney and of course, her spine. it was very clear these were injuries sustained from a lap belt .

    >> reporter: brin's spinal cord was crushed.

    >> i put my ear right up to her mouth and she whispered "am i disabled?" and i just sat back and i looked at her, and i said, why, why do you say that? and she said, "because i can't feel my legs."

    >> reporter: brynn's paralysis highlights a problem named seatbelt syndrome. seatbelts are not designed for children, but lap belts alone can cause serious internal injuries in a crash.

    >> typically, a parent or child will do this. that's what brynn did, put it behind her back. now the car crashes and she folds over like this.

    >> reporter: statistics show kids 4 to 8 years old in booster seats are 45% less likely to be injured or killed in car accidents . while the laws vary from state to state, only half require booster seats until the recommended age of 8. three states -- florida, arizona and south dakota -- do not require kids to ride in booster seats at all. that worries doctors from the children's hospital in philadelphia. who have studied thousands of accidents where kids buckled up have been injured or killed. they're working with researchers at rowan university in new jersey to better understand how to protect kids in crashes.

    >> we want the belt to rest on the bone parts of their body. and so, as you can see with this dummy, this belt is really low on their hips. the belt comes right across their shoulder or their clavicle.

    >> reporter: engineers at ford have also been working to prevent seatbelt injuries. after ten years of work, they have developed restraints with airbags that offer more protection during a crash.

    >> it distributes the load so the pressure on the chest is significantly less for a child.

    >> reporter: for dixie and brynn duncan, their tragedy now fuels their mission.

    >> packing around a booster seat compared to a wheelchair, there's no argument with me.

    >> reporter: to get more states and more kids buckled up safely.

    >> some people put their children in booster seats and no one else would get hurt.

    >> reporter: we should point out that dixie and brynn have been instrumental in pushing for minnesota to change its booster seat law, now going from the age of 4 up to the age of 8. meredith?

    >> important story.

updated 11/5/2009 11:48:53 AM ET 2009-11-05T16:48:53

Air bags have long been mounted in the steering wheel, dashboard and sides of vehicles. Now, they're in the seat belts.

Ford Motor Co. plans to introduce seat belt-mounted air bags in the back seat of the 2011 Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle, which will hit the market next fall. Ford says it's the first automaker to mass produce the technology.

The belts have a cylindrical air bag that stretches from the buckle to the shoulder and fits inside a pocket sewn into the belt. If the air bag is needed, the car sends a signal that releases the bag. It inflates more gently than a front air bag, and with cooler air, so it's safer for children.

Srini Sundararajan, the Ford engineer who was chiefly responsible for developing the seat belts, says the wider belts and bags help distribute crash forces across the occupant's chest, so there's less chance of a serious injury. They also help support the occupant's head and neck.

"The top two lifesaving devices today are the seat belt and the air bag. This combines them into one great feature," Sundararajan said.

Ford has been working on the technology for a decade and had to overcome numerous challenges bringing it to market.

For example, front air bags are powered by a pyrotechnic device that generates hot gas. They also deploy very quickly because they need to cover a greater distance before they reach the driver or passenger. Seat belt air bags don't have that distance to cover, so they can deploy more gently, although Srini said they're still fully deployed in a tenth of a second. They also use cold gas technology.

Ford introduced a back-seat air bag concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 2001, but the inflator was located in the trunk and it rattled around too much, bothering drivers, Sundararajan said.

Ford also did a significant amount of testing to make sure the bags would protect children, even if they're sleeping and their heads are drooping. The belt also works with booster seats.

Sue Cischke, Ford's group vice president for sustainability, environmental and safety engineering, wouldn't say how much the belts with air bags will cost, but she did say the technology is expensive. They will be available as an option at first, since some drivers — particularly those without children — may not feel they need them.

"With any new safety technology, you have to do a lot to educate the consumer," she said. "We're not sure what people will value with this."

Cischke said the Explorer was chosen for the new seat belts because it's popular with families and has also been a platform for other safety introductions, such as side-curtain air bags and stability control. Cischke said the price could come down substantially if Ford decides to put the seat belts on other vehicles.

Edward DeSmet, a technical seat belt specialist at Ford, said test subjects found the padded belts even more comfortable than regular ones. He hopes that leads more people to use them. U.S. seat belt usage in back seats is still at a dismal 60 percent, compared with 83 percent in the vehicle as a whole, DeSmet said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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