March 7, 2013
The potential for public relations to create positive social change would prove its worth in 1971 when administrative leaders within the U.S. Department of Transportation sought to replace car seatbelts with air bags in all new vehicles starting in 1974. The controversial move lay with the fact that although seatbelts had saved thousands of lives, they remained very unpopular with American consumers, the majority simply refusing to wear them. The solution, some claimed, would come from eliminating seatbelts entirely, and in their place installing the newer, less irritating airbag technology. This decision would be supported despite reservations from auto industry manufacturers that airbags came with several drawbacks, including potential injury to children, damage to ear drums as a result of the explosive noise and their tendency to distract drivers attempting to navigate through accidents.
Influential voices within the PR industry, aware of the serious ramifications of the proposal, used the power and influence of public relations to ensure the safety and well-being of the general public. These individuals would first go to work on convincing hesitant seat belt manufacturers of their own self-worth, reminding them that they produced a product proven to save lives and that attempts to defend their industry would hardly be viewed as self-serving. Next, the now allied American Seat Belt Council and PR practitioners would take aim at the federal government, arguing that they had no right to eliminate something so critical in protecting the safety of American drivers. To this end, both sides brought the issue to the Senate Commerce Committee and subsequently altered the regulation to include seat belts alongside airbags in new vehicles. From this point on, the consensus would be to reach out to anyone who could forward the objective of making seat belt usage commonplace. Using the power of contacts and the media, public relations activists and the Council would also be successful in lobbying for mandatory seat belt laws, similar to those found in other countries at the time.
Going from being almost eliminated to mandatory law, PR’s role in preserving seat belts is one of the most important and influential actions taken in the history of the automobile industry. Thanks to the resourcefulness of PR professionals, airbags would be withdrawn from production until perfected, only to return as a supplement to seat belts – not a replacement. Without the influence of public relations “there wouldn’t be a seat belt industry,” said American Seat Belt Council President Charles Pulley. Needless to say, without a seat belt industry, many lives would certainly have been unnecessarily lost.