When and Why: The Invention of Car Seat Belts

Martin Aguilar

Seat belts are one of the most significant car safety feature as it can effectively help save lives. In fact, the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says seat belts save more than 15,000 lives each year.

Despite its effectiveness however, some motorists still tend to give little importance to the benefits of wearing a seat belt while on the road. With that in mind, have you ever asked yourself when and why seat belts were invented? Here’s an overview. English engineer George Cayley is considered as the father of seat belt. He first introduced it during the late 1800s to strap and make pilots secure inside their gliders. It made sense why Cayley thought of inventing a seat belt for pilots because he is also an aeronautical engineer and designer.

It was in 1885 when the seat belt was first patented by Edward Claghorn as a means of keeping tourist visiting New York safe while inside a vehicle. However, seat belts are still not seen as a necessity during this time. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, car-related accidents in the US increased significantly with about 30,000 human casualties. Medical professionals wanted to do something about the issue and in mid 1930s they tested the effectiveness of lap belts, which is considered a form of seat belt. The study concluded that lap belts are crucial in keeping the driver safe in an event of a road accident. Medical professionals notified auto manufacturers to make seat belts a standard feature in all cars. But still, wearing a seat belt while behind the wheel was not considered a practice then.

It was in 1954 when Sports Car Club of America required race car drivers to wear lap belts during races. As such, we could say that race car drivers were the first to religiously wear seat belts. A year later, in 1955, the Society of Automotive Engineers appointed its first Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee. It was also during this year that California became the first state to require all brand-new cars to be equipped with lap belts. Then years later, the two-point seat belt is introduced.

The seat belts that we know of today was first seen in 1958 thanks to Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin. Bohlin was hired by Volvo with the task of designing a seat belt that will make its cars safer. As a result, the three-point seat belt, which is the same seat belts we see in modern cars today, was invented. The three-point seat belt was first introduced in Volvo cars in 1959.

Volvo decided to let other car manufacturers to use Bohlin’s invention for free. You’ve got to admire Volvo for prioritizing safety rather than money. Bohlin died in 2002, and Volvo said that his invention saved more than one million lives. What could have happened if Volvo decided to keep the three-point seat belt tech among themselves? For sure, that would surely change the way we think of car safety.

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