Ford will make its new inflatable seat belt an option on the Flex and Lincoln vehicles starting next summer.
The high-tech pretensioner contains an airbag that deploys in the event of an accident and expands to cover five times more of the occupant's torso than a traditional belt. By diffusing crash pressure over a larger area, the new belt helps reduce the risk of injury to backseat passengers.
"This advanced restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck, and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers, often children, and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to such injuries," said Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering.
The development won the auto manufacturer the gold medal for Applied Technology at the 2011 Edison Awards, and it's currently an option only in the 2011 Ford Explorer. Early data shows that 40 percent of Explorer sales are to parents opting for the rear passenger safety feature. The Flex, which shares the same vehicle platform as the Ford Explorer, is also a popular family vehicle.
But the real safety advantage could be that it encourages more people to use the rear seat belts in the first place. The padded inflatable belt feels more comfortable, says Ford, and passengers may be more inclined to use the comfier pretensioner. In the U.S., only 61 percent of rear passengers use seat belts, compared with 82 percent usage by front seat passengers, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.