The Hotly Contested History of the Seat Belt

A brief review of the often-fraught and highly contested history of the seat belt, one of the most effective in-car safety devices ever invented.

E.J. Claghorn’s seat belt

Schematic for the first patented American seatbelt.

In honor of the 2011 Click It or Ticket campaign (May 23–June 5), we decided to research the fascinating subject of seat belt history. As researching history on the Internet usually goes, it turned out to be quite the romp through fields of mis- and disinformation, with a measured dose of contradiction thrown in. Here’s what we’re sure is true:

1849 – seat belts make their debut (sorta)

The Internet assures us this is when Volvo offered the first car with built-in seatbelts. If true, it’s interesting that they didn’t introduce the world’s first 3-point front seat belts until 110 years later …

1885 – the first seat belt patent

Edward J. Claghorn nabs the first U.S. patent for something like a seat belt, though he himself describes it in the patent application as having nothing whatsoever to do with automobiles.

1885–1920s – cars with seat belts hit the roads

Nothing happens.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Claghorn’s invention fizzled, but cars with seat belts begin to appear. With little traffic on the roads at the time, these early seat belts undoubtedly helped keep motorists from bouncing around too much during very bumpy rides.

Later, the seat belt emerges in the worlds of flying — where it served to keep pilots in their seats during upside-down maneuvers — and racing, marking the first time racecar drivers managed to be more sane than the rest of the populace.

1930s – lap belts appear

Several U.S. physicians install lap belts (aka, 2-point seat belts) in their own cars and begin urging auto manufacturers to include them in all new cars. The auto manufacturers don’t listen until …

1950 – Nash models get the safety belt

The now-defunct manufacturer Nash includes seat belts in its Statesman and Ambassador models. The general public isn’t all that excited about the development, however, and seat belts continue to be nonstandard for decades to come.

1954 – racecar drivers love seat belt safety

The racecar-driving world continues to outpace safety boards in the Grand Prix du Sanity when the Sports Car Club of America mandates that competing drivers wear lap belts.

1955 – a seat belt committee is formed

The Society of Automotive Engineers gets wise and establishes the Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee.

1956 – safety restraints become optional

Volvo, Ford, and Chrysler each include and actively market seat belts as accessories or options in new models. Numerous Ford ads make their new “Lifeguard” safety features — seat belts included — a central feature. Volvo’s offering anticipates modern seat belts with a diagonal chest strap.

1958 – the 3-point belt saves lives

Volvo design engineer Nils Bohlin patents the first 3-point safety belt. In 2002, Volvo estimated that the invention had already saved over one million lives.

1959 – Volvo leads the way

Volvo makes the 3-point seat belt standard. In Sweden.

1963 – the first standard seat belts

Volvo makes the 3-point belt standard in front seats in the U.S.

1965 – Europe requires front seat belts

Front seat belts become a requirement for cars manufactured in Europe. In the U.S., an estimated 50,000 people die in car wrecks. The U.S. Senate passes a 2-year, $320 million highway beautification bill. Less than one percent of those funds go to highway safety studies.

1966 – the NHTSA is born

The U.S. Congress passes the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act authorizing the federal government to set and regulate motor vehicle and highway safety standards. The acts also create the National Highway Safety Bureau, now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Resulting automobile design improvements include:

  • Head rests
  • Energy absorbing steering wheels
  • Shatter-resistant windshields
  • Mandated installation of seat belts

1966–1970 – seat belts become standard

With seat belts now present in all American-manufactured cars, seat belt advocates turn to the grim task of convincing Americans to use them. Misconceptions spread like wildfire, convincing some that seat belts will prevent them from escaping their cars underwater or in a fire, and others that it was actually safer to be thrown from a car in an accident. Others assert that drivers compensated for the increased safety by driving more recklessly.

1970 – a hotly contested year

A Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard proposes that all vehicles made after January 1, 1973, include an automatic restraint system, i.e., air bags or automatic belts. The auto industry, knowing that it would have to increase production costs to meet the new standard, balks, leading to a decade of argument and delay.

1981 – seat belt use languishes

Worn down by a decade of argument over the automatic restraint system question, the NHTSA finally withdraws their proposal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 11 percent of those in cars make use of their seat belts.

1983 – new restraint systems regulation

Realizing how much money automatic safety restraint systems would save them, State Farm Insurance Company brings the NHTSA to court over the matter. State Farm wins the case and the NHTSA is ordered to write a new regulation for automatic restraint systems.

1984 – NHTSA proposes seat belt regulations

The NHTSA proposes that automatic restraint systems be required in new vehicles unless mandatory seat belt laws covered two-thirds of population by September 1989. Automakers, safety advocates, and the NHTSA join forces to encourage states’ passage of such laws.

1985 – most states warm to seat belt laws

In startling contrast to the glacial pace of earlier attempts at seat-belt reform, it takes just one year for mandatory seat belt use propositions to be introduced in all states but Idaho and Nevada.

1989 – seat belt use is mandated

By September, 34 states had established seat belt use laws.

1995 – New Hampshire lags

On December 27, Maine finally passes a mandatory seat belt use law, leaving only New Hampshire without such legislation on the books.

1997 – a big year for safety

The CDC reports that seat belt use has increased to 68 percent.

2010 – seat belt use peaks

According to the NHTSA, seat belt use reaches 85 percent, with higher numbers common in the western states.

There’s still room for safety belt improvement

New Hampshire still has no mandatory seat belt use law for adults, and 16 other states have only implemented secondary enforcement laws. In contrast to primary use laws, under which a police officer can stop and ticket a driver simply for not wearing a seat belt, secondary laws only allow for mandatory seat belt use enforcement if a driver has been stopped for some other reason. Studies have shown that primary enforcement is far more effective in improving use and lowering fatalities.

So do your part to prevent crash fatalities by strapping in every time and encouraging your friends, loved ones, coworkers — everyone! — to do the same all year round.

Related links

Seat belt safety and state laws
The physics of seat belt safety

8 Responses to “The Hotly Contested History of the Seat Belt”

  1. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Nicole stanley
    July 31, 2014 #

    I've been looking around for something to organise my car I think these car seat organisers would be good to keep my vehicle clean and tidy.

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      Cindi Schroeder
      November 15, 2014 #

      Seat belts do save lives, but can also choke you. I saw a woman with a slash in her chest from a seat belt. My chiropractor told me that the best kind of seat belt would be a harness type like the race car drivers wear. This would possibly prevent whiplash form car crashes. I also know that air bags are good, except that can give you a broken nose! Yes, better that going through the windshield that is now also safety proof. What did we do when we were kids in the 1950's? We held on tight and are still alive!

  2. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Mark S.
    November 13, 2014 #

    How could any state not have a seat belt law???

    • Avatar for John Moore Williams
      January 28, 2016 #

      Easy, tell the Feds they will not comply. The Constitution defines the 18 enumerated powers given to the Feds, everything else is up to the states. The secondary problem is that the Feds will bribe the states, "you want money for roads?" "ok then bring this law to your state and we'll give you money"

  3. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Michael Collins
    April 5, 2015 #

    No mention of Glenn Sheren? He was granted a U.S. patent for an automobile safety belt system on an application originally filed in 1952.

  4. Avatar for John Moore Williams
    Roberto diLavinio
    April 30, 2016 #

    They have to tell me from the time it became mandatory how many people where saved from a possibly fatal accident and I want to know the numbers only for that particular year. It should be year 1965. Making this law mandatory is equal to force the owner of a private house to built it anti-earthquake than wait for the earthquake and find the owner half-alive in his house that was almost swallowed by a huge crack in the earth or by a sinkhole. It's like saying "you need to give up your faith because I am god in the government and God is nobody". Then you really are waiting for troubles and the god of the government is all busy trying to prove that he saved your life with all of the safety measure he was forcing you to adopt. Give me a break! Would you? I have enough of that white bishop! So where is the mandatory regulations for excess of sugars for food or drink being sold? In only 10 years there is 2 million people death for diabetes. Within 50 years there is 1 million people that "they say" were saved by the seatbelts.


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