Wearing a seatbelt is one of the best ways a person can protect themselves in a car crash. Everyone—young or old, rich or poor—is expected to be strapped to their seat while traveling. Just wearing a seatbelt can save your life, as simple as it is.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over half of people aged 13 to 44 who died in crashes in 2014 failed to wear a seatbelt. In 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association reported that around 14,955 lives were saved by seatbelt use in passenger vehicles. The safety device could have saved 2,549 more if everyone had worn seatbelts that year. Two years later, the national use rate was at 90.7%.
Though the seatbelt was first invented in the 1800s, it didn’t start the way it looks today, and it probably won’t be the same a few years from now either.
History of seatbelts
George Cayley, an English aeronautical engineer, and designer, was the first person who thought of creating the device in the late 1800s to secure pilots in their gliders. It wasn’t until years later that American Edward J. Claghorn created the first patented seatbelt. On February 10, 1885, Claghorn patented his seatbelt to keep tourists visiting New York City safe while traveling in taxis. It was composed of only a lap strap with hooks attached to a fixed object. As valuable as it might have been, the seatbelt still didn’t enjoy widespread use.
By the 1930s, however, car-related accidents in the US had cost around 30,000 lives, causing US physicians to test how effective lap belts were at preventing injury. Once they established the link between road safety and seatbelts, they notified manufacturers of the need to include seatbelts in their vehicles. The Sports Car Club of America began requiring race car drivers to wear lap belts in competition in 1954. The following year, the Society of Automotive Engineers created a Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee.
Neurologist C. Hunter Shelden also proposed using a retractable seatbelt in the Journal of the American Medical Association in November 1955. He introduced a model for the seatbelt after observing a rise in the number of head injuries due to car accidents. American automaker Ford started to offer seatbelts as an additional feature in their vehicles that same year.
The only type of seatbelt available to drivers until 1959 was the two-point lap belt, which drivers would wear across the body with a buckle just above the abdomen. They were supposed to provide safety to drivers and passengers but instead were known to cause internal injuries in high-speed crashes. Although automobiles already featured these seatbelts, race car drivers were the only ones seen using them.
The rise of the three-point seatbelt
In 1958, Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt we know today. The seatbelt had both a lap and a shoulder portion, with three points attached to the vehicle: one at the shoulder and two at the hips. Working for the Swedish automobile manufacturer Volvo, Bohlin created the three-point seatbelt to provide better security during collisions to the upper and lower body. They introduced the seatbelt as part of their vehicles in 1959, with the Volvo Amazon and PV544 being the first to have it installed. Because it was so effective, Volvo allowed other automakers to use Bohlin’s design for free.
While Bohlin and Volvo did create and popularize the modern three-point seatbelt, what people do not often know is that Bohlin based his invention on the three-point seatbelt design patented by two Americans, Roger Griswold and Hugh DeHaven, in 1955. The CIR-Griswold Restraint is similar to Bohlin’s seatbelt but with one main difference: the buckle is in the middle. Bohlin analyzed around 28,000 vehicular accidents to perfect his seatbelt, with the buckle located at the side. He noticed that pilots “were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute.” Moving the buckle to the side kept the seatbelt simple and effective, making it convenient for everyday use. All it took was just one hand.
Volvo and Safety
It’s no exaggeration that Volvo’s role in using seatbelts worldwide has saved lives. Bohlin stayed on as Head of Safety at Volvo until 1985, after which he remained as a safety consultant. Upon his death in 2002, Volvo said they estimated the seatbelt had saved over a million lives since its invention. Volvo became the first automobile manufacturer to offer seatbelts in each of the vehicles they sold. It’s believed they would have earned billions of dollars if they had kept the patent to themselves.
Still, the seatbelt didn’t have such a great start. Rumors began circulating that seatbelts could trap drivers and passengers or decapitate them in an accident. Even with solid data from Volvo showing that seatbelts were safe, it took a while for governments worldwide to listen.
The first seatbelt law in the US was a federal law on January 1, 1968. The law required manufacturers to fit seatbelts into all designated seating positions in all vehicles except buses. However, it took years for the actual use of seatbelts to become mandatory. In 1970, Australia mandated seatbelts at all times, while New York became the first US state to require drivers to use a seatbelt in 1984. Today, the only US state that doesn’t require adult drivers to wear a seatbelt is New Hampshire.
There is still much to be done concerning seatbelt usage worldwide, and automakers continue to develop the device to increase safety and suit newer models of automobiles. For instance, Ford featured an inflatable seatbelt in the rear seats of their 2011 Explorer SUVs to protect backseat passengers like children and the elderly. As we enter the age of autonomous vehicles, Volvo is studying the use of a different kind of safety device: a blanket that can cocoon passengers upon sudden impact. Volvo’s current head of safety, Malin Ekholm, said, “It might not be the final answer, but it is the beginning of a journey.”