Why Seatbelts Save Lives: A Brief History

Why Seatbelts Save Lives: A Brief History

Seat belts are an essential safety feature in every car. While it may be taken for granted now, the fight to make seat belts standard in every vehicle took decades.

The seat belt is arguably the most important automotive safety feature ever devised. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seat belts have cut the instances of serious injury or death in a car crash by about 50%. While other safety features, such as air bags, offer protection, they are most effective when combined with seat-belt use.

But seat belts weren’t always standard in every vehicle. In fact, it took decades after the invention of the first lap belt before the idea caught on with consumers and manufacturers alike.

A History of the Seat Belt

Aeronautical engineer Sir George Cayley is typically credited with inventing the first lap belt in the early 19th century during his work in the emerging field of aeronautics.

However, Edward J. Claghorn can rightly claim the title of inventor of the safety belt when he filed the first patent for a vehicular seat belt in 1885. Claghorn created the seat belt less as a driving safety measure and more to keep tourists secure in New York taxis, according to Second Chance Garage.

Physicians in the United States began experimenting with seat belts as a safety feature in the 1930s. To mitigate the 30,000 automotive deaths per year, they urged car manufacturers to make seat belts standard in all automobiles. Seat belts did not catch on with the public, however, which viewed them as a nuisance and believed that cars with built-in seat belts were actually less safe.

Lap belts remained an optional feature from various American automotive manufacturers through the 1940s. Nash Motors Company created the first car with built-in lap belts bolted to the frame in 1949, but these built-in safety belts were phased out by 1950 due to lack of use.

After World War II, an increase in cars on the road led to an all-time high in crash injuries and fatalities. Through the 1950s, support for greater safety measures grew.

In 1953, the Colorado State Medical Society endorsed policies to install seat belts in all cars. The American Medical Association House of Delegates also voted in support of mandatory seat belt installation in automobiles.

In 1954, the Sports Car Club of America, an amateur and professional racing organization, made lap belts mandatory for all competing racers.

California passed a law that required seat belts in all new manufactured automobiles, making it the first state to do so in 1955. That same year, Americans Roger Griswold and Hugh DeHaven received the patent for the first three-point seat belt, the CIR-Griswold Restraint. The design featured a buckle fastener in the middle to disperse the force from an impact.

In Sweden, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin worked to develop his own breakthrough in safety technology: the modern three-point seat belt, which was secured across the body, instead of at the center. This seat belt was so effective that Volvo filed the design under an open patent, allowing any manufacturer to adopt it, according to Wired. Volvo estimates that Bohlin’s design has saved over 1 million lives since its inception.

By 1966, seat belts were required in all American automobiles. Every state except New Hampshire instituted tickets for riders without seat belts by 1995.

Though manufacturers have worked on innovations to further improve safety, such as Ford’s inflatable safety belt, revealed in 2001, and a four-point seat belt designed by Volvo and Ford, Bohlin’s design is so simple and effective that no other restraint has been able to unseat it as the de facto seat belt of choice.

So the next time you get into your car, thank Nils Bohlin and countless other engineers and organizations for developing the seat belt you’re undoubtedly using to keep you, and everyone else on the road, safe.

Drive Safely!

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