When David Hollister introduced a seat belt bill in Michigan in the early 1980s that levied a fine for not buckling up, the state representative received hate mail comparing him to Hitler. At the time, only 14 percent of Americans regularly wore seat belts, even though the federal government required lap and shoulder belts in all new cars starting in 1968.

Resistance to the life-saving devices at the time was the norm.

Drivers and passengers complained that seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive, but the uproar over mandatory seat belt laws was mostly ideological. One of Hollister’s colleagues in the Michigan House called the seat belt bill “a pretty good lesson in mass hysteria created by a corporate-controlled media” and warned that the government would outlaw smoking next. Another said that anyone who voted for the bill should be recalled.

Interlock Mechanisms to Buzzing Sounds to Automatic Restraint Systems

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A person fastening her seat belt in a motor vehicle; image courtesy of the CDC, 1990.

The battle over safety belt laws in 1980s America reflected widespread criticism of government regulation in a free society. The controversy first heated up in 1973, when the NHTSA required all new cars to include an inexpensive technology called a “seat belt interlock mechanism” that prevented a vehicle from starting if the driver wasn’t buckled up.

“An enormous political backlash ensued,” says Jerry Mashaw, professor emeritus at the Yale Law School and co-author of The Struggle for Auto Safety. “Congress received more letters from Americans complaining about [the interlock mechanism] than they did about Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’”

Congress responded swiftly in 1974 by killing the interlock mechanism and further mandating that the annoying buzzing sound that indicated an unlatched seat belt could only last eight seconds.

The NHTSA didn’t give up on seat belts, though. It passed a new rule in 1977 that put the ball squarely in the automakers’ court. Detroit had to install some kind of “passive restraint”—a system that worked automatically without driver intervention—that would protect a crash test dummy from damage when hitting a wall at 35 mph.

The only real options at the time, says Mashaw, were airbags and something called “automatic safety belts,” a front seat belt that ran along a track and automatically fastened when the car door closed. Automakers didn’t love either option, but decided to go with the automatic safety belts because they were cheaper. Consumers immediately began arguing that automatic seat belts were unsafe in a car fire, potentially trapping passengers in a burning car. Carmakers agreed to add a release latch, which drivers could easily disconnect, rendering the automatic belt ineffective.

But before any of those changes could be made, Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a promise of deregulation, especially of the automotive industry. One of the first things the Reagan administration did was to rescind the NHTSA rule requiring passive restraints. Insurance companies sued the administration and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a surprise ruling, the justices voted unanimously to block the Reagan administration and enforce the NHTSA’s rule.

“The Reagan administration was put in a bind,” says Mashaw. “They were diehard deregulators and the Supreme Court told them they had to regulate. There’s no way they could justify saying that passive restraints didn’t work, so Elizabeth Dole, then Secretary of the Department of Transportation, came up with what I think was an ingenious compromise.”

Elizabeth Dole's Compromise

Elizabeth Dole
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Elizabeth Dole, shown in here in 1983, served as Secretary of Transportation for the United States under President Reagan.

Dole issued a rule in 1985 that required automakers to install driver’s side airbags in all new cars unless—and this is the kicker—two-thirds of the states passed mandatory seat belt laws by April 1, 1989. Dole’s rule was so politically adroit because it looked like a regulation, but was really a gift to the auto industry. Cars already had seat belts, so all Detroit had to do was convince states to pass mandatory seat belt laws and it was off the hook for installing expensive air bags or automatic belts.

The lobbying was intense, with top executives from General Motors and Chrysler, including Lee Iacocca, making a direct pitch to state legislators about seat belt safety. 

''The big heaters were all over this one,'' said one Illinois lawmaker at the time. ''They were all working on us. I haven't seen a bill this heavily lobbied in a long time.'' 

There were even accusations that G.M. was putting pressure on states to either pass a seat belt law or be excluded from possible locations for a multibillion-dollar Saturn plant. G.M. called the allegations “absolutely ridiculous.”

New York was the first state to pass a mandatory seat belt law followed by New Jersey. In New York, failure to wear a seat belt brought a $50 fine, which was no small change in 1985. Officials said that thanks to the law, seat belt compliance jumped to 70 percent in New York in less than a year, but that didn’t mean that everyone liked it. As one Bronx resident grumbled, "This is not supposed to be Russia where the government tells you what to do and when to do it.”

Car Makers Required to Install Airbags

Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole
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Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and Ford Motor Company Chairman Donald Petersen watch a demonstration of air bags to be installed in the driver side of 5,000 Ford automobiles under a 35 million dollar contract between the General Services Administration and Ford Motor Company, 1985.

In the end, the hard sell by automakers came up short. At least eight states shot down mandatory seat belt laws on ideological grounds, and of the states who passed them, too many of the new seat belt laws didn’t meet the standards established by Dole’s rule. Either the fine was too low (less than $25 dollars) or failure to wear a seat belt wasn’t listed as a “primary” offense, meaning people could only be ticketed if they were stopped for speeding or another traffic violation.

Since qualifying seat belt laws weren’t passed in two-thirds of the states, carmakers had to comply with Dole’s original rule and install driver’s side airbags in all new cars starting in the early 1990s.

“We ended up with both airbags and mandatory seat belt use laws,” says Mashaw. “There was still a lot of resistance by people who thought this was a terrible infringement on their liberty. People were selling T-shirts that made it look like you’re wearing a seatbelt.”

As of August 2020, New Hampshire was the only state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults, a product of its “Live free or die” libertarian streak. As a result, seat belt use in New Hampshire stalled out at 70 percent compared to more than 90 percent nationally.

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