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Volvo Gave Away Their Most Important Invention To Save Lives

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It's hard to believe now in this age of lane-departure warning systems and radar-guided automatic braking, but once upon a time, safety in cars was kind of an afterthought. Volvo built their reputation on selling safer cars, but they gave away the most important safety device ever invented: the three-point seat belt.

UK autos website Arnold Clark took a look back at what is now the universal modern seat belt, created by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin in 1959. At that time, seat belts were simple two-point waist restraints, and in crashes they often did more harm than good.


Bohlin was a former Saab aviation engineer who worked on ejector seats. He invented a seat belt that fit over the driver's torso as well as his or her lap. The design was first launched in the Nordic market in 1959 on the Volvo Amazon and Volvo PV544, pictured above. It made its way to the U.S. in 1963.


It was a revolutionary invention, and one that probably could have netted Volvo a fortune on patents alone.

But Volvo didn't do that — they gave the patent away because they decided it was too important to keep to themselves. From the story:

The reason the three-point seatbelt is so widely adopted is actually because Volvo opened up the patent so that any car manufacturer could use it in their design. They decided that the invention was so significant, it had more value as a free life saving tool than something to profit from.

Volvo’s managing director Alan Dessell is quoted as saying: “The decision to release the three-point seat belt patent was visionary and in line with Volvo’s guiding principle of safety.”

Bohlin continued to work for Volvo until 1985, pushing for continued safety improvements like side impact protection and rear seat belts. He died in 2002, a few years after receiving a gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science and getting inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Four years ago, Volvo said more than a million people worldwide have been saved by his seatbelt design.

So if you've ever had your life saved by a three-point seat belt, you have Bohlin to thank for it, and maybe also Volvo for putting human lives ahead of corporate profits.


Photos credit Volvo