Ford Motor Co. is turning its seat belt into a marketing tool.
Ford said that beginning in 2010, it plans to be the first automaker to offer inflatable rear seat belts, a technology aimed at reducing injuries to children and elderly passengers in a crash.
Like other automakers, Ford is trying to use the different technology as a way to attract new customers, particularly at a time when many vehicles come with six or more airbags and myriad other safety features.
Ford also offers radar-enabled adaptive cruise control and amenities called MyKey, which allows parents to impose certain limitations on teenage drivers, and Sync, a system that permits hands-free interaction with mobile phones and the vehicle's audio system.
Still, safety ranks low on the list of priorities for many shoppers. A survey earlier this year for the retailer CarMax ranked safety fifth out of six factors that consumers consider most important when choosing a vehicle, behind affordability, quality, performance and environmental factors but ahead of design.
Just 6 percent of respondents chose safety as their top priority.
Ford's seat belts contain an inflatable bag inside the shoulder strap and a small cylinder of cold compressed gas beneath the seat that is dispensed through the buckle when a crash is detected. The belts inflate less explosively than a traditional air bag and are designed to spread the force of a crash over an area of the body five times larger than regular seat belts, Ford said.
Ford said children and older people commonly sit in the back seat and are more susceptible to being injured in a crash, particularly in the head, chest or neck, than other occupants of a vehicle.