Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort.
The history of seat belts is a lengthy one, consisting of slow innovation and slow acceptance. Much of that history featured trial and error in designs of different belts, with a variety of attempts finally leading to the one most of us use in cars today—the three-point seat belt, offering both shoulder and lap coverage.
But before we get to the three-point charmer of a seat belt, let’s start from the beginning. The first patent for an automobile seat belt went out in February of 1885 as a “safety belt for tourists,” but the description sounds fairly basic and non-explanatory—according to About.com Inventors, the belt is “provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object.”
Versions of the seat belt came along in subsequent years, featuring a two-point design commonly referred to as a “lap belt.” According to the Independent, car companies in America began offering those midway through the 20th century. Nash added lap belts as an option as early as 1949, and Ford followed with certain models in 1955 due to the efforts of a rising company executive—and a later U.S. Secretary of Defense—by the name of Robert McNamara. Saab took it a step further a few years later, with lap belts becoming standard in 1958.
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The two-point style of seat belt offered more protection than wearing no belt at all, but certain crashes could cause serious injuries due to restraints on just the abdomen. The U.S. Department of Transportation showed how dangerous those restraints could be in comparison to three-point seat belts in a video from 1970, two years after belts became mandatory in the country.
Regardless, two-point lap belts were the way to go at that time—according to History, they remained as the only type of belt available in vehicles before the year 1959. Even then, buckling up regularly wasn’t too much of a concern.
Just because the two-point belts were the sole option when cars came off of the production line at that time, not everyone accepted them as is. The Independent cites two Americans as patenting a three-point seat belt in 1951, but that so-called “CIR-Griswold Restraint” left the buckle in the middle.
It was 1959 when the first modern three-point belt made its way into vehicles, as Volvo’s first chief safety engineer, Nils Bohlin, introduced the belt the year after his hiring. The adding of that position—and the introduction of more safety measures at Volvo—stemmed in part from a relative of the CEO dying in a car crash, according to History.
The belt made by Bohlin is the one we all know today, with a shoulder and hip restraint in order to secure the entire body—not just the abdomen. Perhaps the most interesting—and well-meaning—part of the invention was the fact that History cites Volvo as offering the three-point design to other manufacturers free of charge in the interest of safety.
Seat belts became mandatory in all new U.S. vehicles from 1968 on, less than 10 years after Bohlin brought the modern version around. When the inventor died in 2002, Volvo estimated that his seat-belt design had saved over a million lives since its introduction just over 40 years prior.
While technology keeps on advancing, the basic design of the three-point seat belt remains the one introduced by Bohlin nearly 60 years ago. With so many innovations being replaced each time new technology comes around, it’s nice to see one or two hang around—and continue to save lives, while they’re at it.
If you have suggestions for future innovations to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.