Recent statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board show that 82 percent of all Americans consistently use the seat belts in their cars. This is up from 58 percent in 1994. According to Len Stoler Hyundai of Ownings Mills, MD, wearing a seat belt is the single most important thing you can do to survive an accident. It wasn’t always that way, though. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1950s that seat belts were even an option in most American automobiles. Here’s the story.
For the first half of the 20th century, the major car manufacturers generally paid little attention to automotive safety. In fact, safety equipment was usually considered a “feature” that was added to cars to increase sales. Yet, make no mistake, getting into an accident in the cars of yesteryear could be fatal event. Take a look at the inside of the cars of the 1950s, and you’ll be amazed at what you see. Styling was all important so interiors were filled with hard surfaces, big chrome knobs and pointed objects…and no seat belts.It’s no coincidence that the fatality rate in car accidents back then was significantly higher than it is now.
Americans may have been slow to develop seat belts but in Scandinavia they took it more seriously. Swedish engineer, Nils Bohlin was convinced that seat belts needed to be in cars. He had designed safety gear for Saab airplanes so he understood the value of these things. Volvo hired him in 1958 and put him in charge of their safety engineering department. He soon established that the integration of seat belts was the new top priority at Volvo.
At that time, Bohlin stated: “The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry 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.” So he started working on a design that people would find comfortable. “It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand,” he explained.
Bohlin came up with the three-point seat belt, which ran across the chest and the lower torso with a single belt that buckled near the center of the car at hip level. Tests of this new harness proved that it worked very well; so well that it became standard equipment in all 1959 Volvos. By the time Bohlin died in 2002, Volvo estimated that one million lives had been saved worldwide by his invention.