In 2010, the U.S. National Traffic Safety Administration estimated that seat belts were the determining factor that saved 13,000 lives annually. If you are older than thirty-five years, you probably remember a time when seat belts were actually optional equipment in the back seat of cars — something that today’s drivers would find unthinkable.

Culturally, drivers in North America have changed and become educated with regards to the value of wearing a seat belt, both in terms of reducing fatalities and also minimizing injuries during motor vehicle collisions. But have you ever wondered where the idea for a seat belt came from, or who decided they should be mandatory in new model vehicles?

We researched the evolution of the seat belt, and how it became culturally accepted as a necessity (and not a frill) when driving, as well as the engineering and mechanics behind the original designs, all the way to the three-point seat belt design that is still in use today.

The First Patented Seat Belt Design

A man from New York City, named Edward J. Claghorn invented and patented the first motor vehicle seat belt in the year 1885. The crude belt looked more like a rock climber’s harness than anything similar to the seat belts we wear today, and it had only one purpose: to prevent people from falling out of the vehicle. The inspiration for the design, according to Claghorn, was to help keep tourists to New York City safe. It would detour vacationers if tourists routinely fell out of cars and were run over, particularly on the corduroy roads, that were built out of lumber at the time, and bumpy.

How Physicians Lead the Way

In the 1920s, cars were only starting to appear in larger numbers on the roads in North America. In traffic, you were likely to see a Chrysler, Ford, Mercedes, Chevrolet, Austin or Opel driving down the highway. Mass production and demand meant that your neighbors were likely to own one new vehicle, typically a four door family sedan.

During the 1930s an estimated 30,000 people were dying per year due to automotive collisions and injuries. A male plastic surgeon named Claire L. Straith began taking a camera to accident scenes to document both the cause of the accident, as well as the bodily injuries sustained during motor vehicle crashes. He was primarily focused on the design of the dashboard of vehicles, which included sharp corners and edges, and petitioned automotive manufacturers to consider redesigning the interior of the vehicles to reduce lacerations and head trauma injuries. Claire L. Straith later recruited another prestigious physician by the name of C.J. Strickland, and the two founded the Automobile Safety League of America.

During the 1930s, a dual point seat belt was a feature for the driver and front seat passenger, only as a safety measure to prevent in-cabin impact against the dashboard or steering wheel. Other physicians began to equip their vehicles with seat belts in the front and back, to reduce injuries and protect their families. Seat belts in the back seats remained an additional expense and not a mandatory equipment feature, incredibly, until 1983 which it became compulsory for all vehicles sold in the United States to offer them as standard equipment. By 1984, riding in a vehicle without a seat belt became illegal, and safety legislation was passed across the United States.

Who Was the Inventor of the First Seat belt?

Have you ever wanted to invent something that would change the world, and make you rich and famous? For Nils Bohlin, his passion was to improve the invention of the lap seat belt (which was known for causing spinal damage and neck injuries during collisions) to save lives. But the designer eventually patented it, but then gave the design for the three-point-seatbelt to other manufacturers as an open-source design, so that the technology could be standard within the industry, and save lives.

How is that for altruism? When you consider that virtually every manufacturer evolved to use the three-point seat belt, think of the millions if not billions of dollars that Nils Bohlin passed up on, in order to fulfill his vision of improved motor vehicle safety?

Nils Bohlin was an engineer and employed by Volvo, when he invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. At the time, lap belts were only worn in civilian motor vehicles, however airplane pilots and race car drivers wore harnesses, that were secured to the frame of the vehicle, and offered a two-point waist restraint. Bohlin studied the injuries consistent with impacts while a two-point lap belt was used, and determined that the shock absorption of the seatbelt frequently did more harm, than good, and contributed to exacerbated injuries, rather than saving lives.

Bohlin asked for special permission from his employer, Volvo, to release the design to all automotive manufacturers. Formerly Nils Bohlin was an aviation engineer who worked on dynamic ejector seats for Saab and his testing of impact force and dispersion inspired the automotive three-point seat belt design. He was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science in 1995, and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1999.

In 2009, Volvo published an article and press release, estimating that the open source design that they shared in 1959 had saved over a million lives. The three-point seat belt design celebrated it’s 50th anniversary that year. The first vehicle to be manufactured and sold with the three-point belt was a Volvo PV544, in Kristianstad, Sweden.

Like personal injury lawyers in Chicago, if you have ever watched a crash test in slow motion, you know that seat belts not only save lives, but they reduce the severity of injuries in a motor vehicle collision. It is a small piece of modern technology that has evolved over the decades, and has made riding or driving a car safer now than it ever has been historically. And technically, we owe a nod of gratitude to Volvo, for making the advancement a universal feature in all new cars.

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