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Much-hated seat belt technology making a comeback

It's long been viewed as an example of government regulatory excess and a technology gone wrong. But four decades after the seat belt interlock system was abandoned amid a flurry of consumer complaints, is General Motors about to bring it back to life?

The answer is yes, sort of. The Detroit automaker plans to test the updated technology, which prevents the car from starting unless front-seat occupants are buckled up, on a select number of 2015 models.

SafakOguz | iStock | Getty Images

The Belt Assurance System is being unveiled as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is putting new emphasis on the benefits of seat belts, which were credited with saving 12,174 lives in 2012, the last year the agency has complete data for.

It also comes at a time when GM's commitment to safety has come into question as a result of its ongoing recall crisis, which has so far led to nearly 16 million of its vehicles being recalled worldwide.

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"Customer safety is on the forefront of everything we do. It is essential for the safety of our customers' and all drivers' safety to develop the habit of buckling up each and every time they get into their vehicles," said Jeff Boyer, GM's head of global vehicle safety, in a statement.

"We continue to support this program by NHTSA to remind our drivers to buckle up each time they start their vehicles while also developing other safety features like our Belt Assurance System."

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The original seat belt interlock was one of the first advanced safety devices ordered into production by NHTSA. But unlike now, when even modest new systems only come to market after years of testing and discussion, the federal agency gave automakers barely six-months warning before requiring interlocks on all 1974-model cars.

The devices were severely flawed, and often failed to let a vehicle start even if motorists were buckled up. The outcry against interlocks was so severe that NHTSA was quickly forced to lift the mandate.

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The agency then shifted its emphasis to airbags, which were ultimately required to be powerful enough to protect unbelted occupants. The technology at the heart of the GM Belt Assurance System stems from the evolution of these "smart" airbags, which are capable of sensing whether someone is actually sitting in the front seat.

GM contends the new technology is far more reliable than with the original seat belt interlocks, and the optional system will let drivers start the car if riders have yet to buckle up—though they won't be able to shift into drive.

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The new interlock system will be offered as an option on some of the GM vehicles most often ordered by fleets, notably the Chevrolet Cruze, Colorado and Silverado, as well as the GMC Sierra, starting with the 2015 model year. If the response is positive, company officials say the technology could be offered more widely, but GM has no plans to make it a standard feature.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at thedetroitbureau.com.

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