Automatic seat belts (Photo: Honda)

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It's hard to be too critical of the automatic seat belt. These mechanized devices meant well. And in the post-Nader era of the early 1980s, the chastened automotive industry was just trying to get drivers to actually use the most significant safety device invented in automotive history. There were two main flavours of the technology. A combination manual lap belt and automated shoulder belt was employed in vehicles such as the Toyota Cressida -- the lap belt would clip on normally, and the shoulder belt would ride back along a track in the top of the door frame until it had draped its sash of safety across the driver and/or passenger. Another variant automated both lap and shoulder belts with a complicated arrangement that required occupants to slide under the belts for entry and exit.

Both arrangements had the incredibly annoying habit of knocking off eyeglasses or clotheslining anyone unaware enough to be leaning forward when the car was turned on. In the end, automatic seat belts often produced the opposite behaviour from what was intended -- people simply unhooked the manual release and went beltless.