Ford May Have a Better Idea

October 13, 2006
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DEARBORN —When Indy Champ Car driver Katherine Legge's race car lost a wing in the Road America race held at Elkhart Lake, Wis., last month, the car veered out of control and then slammed into a fence at 180 mph. The car burst into pieces and the violent collision sent the cockpit tumbling down the track.

"I think I saw parts breaking off all around me. And I think I saw the engine split away, because the thing I was thinking about the most was that the car was going to catch fire, which it did. Then when the engine went away, I thought, 'OK, that's good," said Legge, a rookie on the Champ Car circuit, after the crash.

"To be honest, I think I had my eyes closed for lots of it, but it was scary."

Legge had to be extricated from what was left of her car. But she was conscious and able to walk to the medical care facility on the track's infield.

"The only problem I am having now is I banged my knee a little bit against the bulkhead. It's just a bit of bruising, which won't look too attractive in my dress at the Atlantic's banquet tonight," she joked after being treated.

Being able to walk away from a brutal accident, like Legge did, is what safety researchers at Ford Motor Co. have been working on for years. For at least the past six years, Ford has been developing a new seat-belt design that the company says could revolutionize passenger vehicle restraint systems. And a portion of the automaker's research has focused on crashes like the one Legge walked away from.

"You've seen race crashes, Indy cars, CART cars — they're traveling 200 mph and they hit a wall. There are parts flying everywhere and, more often than not, somebody actually gets up and walks out of it. It's always amazed me," said Stephen Rouhana, a senior technical leader for safety at Ford, from his office in Dearborn

"And we tried to figure out what it is that is working for them and what it is that may be translated into passenger vehicles."

In addition to examining collisions on race tracks, Ford was also taking a close look at an aging America. The data shows that by the year 2050, the U.S. will have 80 million residents over the age of 65, and 20 million age 85 and older, and all will be riding in vehicles.

"Concurrent with that is the associated decline in the ability to withstand impact as we age. So we did another study that shows by the time someone is 65, the ability to withstand forces from a crash through a belt system is about one-quarter of what it was at the age of 20," said Rouhana.

"We wanted to see if there was something we could take from the racing environment to address that issue."

The result is a four-point seat belt that Ford says would provide more safety and more comfort than the current three-point model. Rouhana said Ford has been working on the new system since he joined the automaker six years ago, and the company already has two patents on the belt, with more likely to come in the future.

"With today's restraint system, the seat belt is the No. 1 safety feature in a vehicle. It's much more effective than an airbag, if you use (a belt)," said Rouhana.

The prototype four-pointer belt Ford has developed has straps that fall across both shoulders and buckles at the center of a person's waist, instead of stretching from one shoulder and buckling at the opposite hip.

"There are two shoulder belts. One is actually on the inboard side of the vehicle, unlike today where we only have a shoulder belt on the outboard side. So let's say, for a driver, you get a crash on the right passenger door or up by the A-pillar by the right side of the car. Just from the physics of the interaction, the driver's body is going to be heading toward that crash site," said Rouhana.

"With an inboard shoulder belt, we now have a way to control the driver's motion and prevent a driver from being moved over to the side of the car that is being damaged. So there is extra benefit for all occupants in these systems."

Rouhana said the four-point belt has been designed to reduce chest injuries, which can often be more harmful to older drivers and passengers. A simple rib fracture that a young person can easily handle could lead to pneumonia and a lengthy hospital stay for an elderly citizen.

But an important key to developing a new restraint system, believe it or not, is comfort, because if a belt causes a wearer distress, it won't be used. If that happens, then a new belt would actually have a negative impact on safety. So Ford has conducted a series of tests, not only to find out if the belt would reduce injuries, but also how comfortable it is to wear.

"Our results have been consistent throughout all of this human-factors research. We ask people lots of questions, but we always end by asking, 'If you had your choice in your next vehicle, which system would you choose: the three-point belt of the four-point belt?' said Rouhana.

"From 70 to 80 percent — and it's been as high as 90 percent depending on the demographics — but certainly over 70 percent of the people in all cases in all the testing we've done have said, 'Give me a four-point belt.' The reason is they perceive it to be safer and because it's more comfortable."

There is a roadblock to production of the four-point belt, though. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 doesn't allow one in passenger vehicles because of "submarining," a situation in certain crashes where the stomach muscles absorb the impact rather than the stronger pelvic region. But Rouhana said new technologies in the four-point belt have eradicated that problem since the standard was written, and Ford has been in contact with lawmakers to demonstrate the benefits of the belt.

So the date Ford will begin producing the belt isn't set. But it may not be that far off, either.

"I can't talk about product plans,' said Rouhana. "But I have said that I believe we will have crossed the T's and dotted the I's by the end of this decade, and have a system that is ready for implementation."   

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