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

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