Ford Motor Co. took a trio of seats to the Frankfurt auto show in Germany last month to see if Europeans have similar tastes to North Americans when it comes to being strapped in.

The carmaker conducted similar seatbelt tests in Detroit during the North American International Auto Show in January. The 2,000 showgoers who tried them favored the 4-point seatbelts over the current 3-point system on all light vehicles.

The road show consists of three distinct seatbelt systems:

  • A 3-point restraint integrated into the seat (as opposed to being affixed to the vehicle).

  • A 4-point belt known as the X4 that crisscrosses the chest, snapping into place on both sides.

  • The emerging popular favorite: the 4-point V4 or “belt and suspenders” design derived from CART racing that goes over the shoulders like knapsack straps, with a single buckle in front.

“We noticed in CART racing you never see a chest injury from these horrific crashes,” says Dr. Stephen W. Rouhana, a physician and group leader for Ford's safety research and development department.

The main drawbacks of the V4 are the potential for the pelvis to slide under the lap belt in a crash, a phenomenon known as “submarining,” as well as the challenge of keeping the belt on the pelvis.

Mr. Rouhana says he is confident both issues can be overcome. Ford's lead scientist on the 4-point system plans to publish a study on the benefits of the 4-point belt this fall, showing an additional 5,000 lives can be saved over a 3-point belt, and 26,000 injuries can be prevented when there is twice as much belt across the body, absorbing energy and keeping the person in place.

This is especially important among older drivers as their bones become more brittle with age. Studies show the chest is 72% less able to withstand belt forces at age 65 as it did at age 20.

In addition to analyzing real-world data and computer modeling, the new generation of crash test dummies is being used to help develop future safety belts, including the new-generation THOR dummy, which measures crash forces on four areas of the torso compared to one on previous generations of dummies.

Ford is working to patent its work, and Mr. Rouhana expects 4-point systems to be in place within 10 years.

Seatbelts date back to the invention of the lap belt in 1956, and Volvo AB is credited with developing the three-point shoulder belt in 1959, considered the “single most important event in (automotive) safety history,” says Dr. Rouhana.

In the U.S., only 70% buckle up. Research shows for every additional 1% belt use, 300 lives are saved.