The History of Seat Belts

by Amanda Hermes
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According to the Traffic Safety Center at the University of California Berkeley, seat belts are "the single most effective motor vehicle occupant safety device yet developed for older children and adults." Seat belts have existed in some form since the early days of automobiles, but they've changed dramatically over time from a single lap belt to the diagonal three-point system we use today. Along with the development of the seat belt came important legislation to ensure that drivers and passengers buckled up.

Early Seat Belts

The UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center reports that seat belts first appeared in American cars in the early 1900s, but they were popular because they kept passengers from falling out during bumpy rides, not as a safety precaution against accidents. After all, there weren't many cars on the roads at this time, so crashes weren't a big concern. Seat belts were later added to airplanes and then to racecars in the 1920s. In the 1930s, several U.S. physicians began adding lap belts to their own cars and urging manufacturers to do the same, according to Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Developments in the 1950s

In 1950, American automaker Nash emerged with the first factory-installed seat belts in the Statesman and Ambassador models, which consisted of a single belt that stretched across your lap. In 1954, the Sports Car Club of America began requiring competing drivers to wear lap belts. When it came to auto manufacturers developing seat belts, Volvo led the pack. In 1956, Volvo introduced a two-point cross-chest diagonal belt. The same year, Ford and Chrysler offered lap belts as an option on some models. Volvo created anchors for two-point diagonal belts in the front seat in 1957. In 1958, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin developed a three-point safety belt with straps based on harnesses used by military pilots. The following year, the three-point belt became standard for all Volvos built in Sweden.

Developments in the 1960s

In 1962, U.S. carmakers required seat belt anchors to be standard in the front seat. Also in this year, the British magazine Which? reported that seat belts reduced the risk of death or serious injury during an auto accident by 60 percent. In 1963, Volvo expanded its three-point safety belt as a standard on cars sold in the United States as well. By the following year, most U.S. manufacturers provided lap belts in the front seat. European carmakers required safety belts in the front seat in 1965, and in 1967, seat belts become standard for all cars built in the United Kingdom (British cars were required to feature the three-point system).

Government Regulation

More and more Americans bought cars every year, but until the 1960s, there was very little government regulation of the auto industry or highways. Carmakers believed that safety features would not sell cars, but would scare the public instead. Most auto advertising focused on comfort, style, and performance rather than safety. In 1965, 50,000 people were killed in car accidents, but the government and the industry focused on drivers and roads as the cause, instead of the cars themselves, according to the Prevention Institute. In 1966, a small group of legislatures, consumer advocates and lawyers began pressuring the government and the auto industry to make cars safer, and they eventually listened.

Highway Safety Act

The Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act were passed in 1966. These were the most substantial pieces of legislature regarding auto industry standards ever passed, because they authorized the federal government to regulate vehicle and highway standards and created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). These measures led to many improvements in auto design, including mandatory installation of seat belts. In 1970, the NHTSA reported that motor vehicle--related deaths had significantly decreased.

Click It or Ticket

Requiring that manufacturers install seat belts in cars did not ensure that people used them, however. For the next 20 years, the auto industry and federal governments campaigned for seat belt laws to be passed in all 50 states. By 1989, 34 states had laws requiring drivers and passengers to buckle up. By 1995, every state except New Hampshire passed legislation mandating seat belt use. In 2002, 19 states had primary enforcement seat belt laws, which enable police officers to ticket a driver solely for lack of wearing a seat belt, which greatly increased belt usage in those states. The NHTSA reports that fatality rates of motor-vehicle accidents have dramatically reduced since the enactment of seat belt laws by state legislatures.

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