On the 13th of August, 1959, a Volvo PV544 was delivered to a dealership in the Swedish town of Kristianstad. At a glance, few would have noticed anything particularly special about it – the PV544 itself had been unveiled in 1958, after all, and was a revised version of the preceding PV444 that had been revealed in 1944.
However, this otherwise unremarkable Volvo featured one key innovation – a new type of three-point seat belt. This simple safety system, which was elegantly designed and easy to use, reduced the risk of injury or death in a collision by more than 50 per cent.
So obvious were the benefits, and so significant the life-saving potential, that Volvo promptly made its design of belt freely available to other manufacturers. Then, in 1963, the company started fitting three-point front belts as standard in its cars and their usage would soon increase exponentially.
The three-point seat belt, aside from establishing Volvo’s reputation for safety, would subsequently go on to save upwards of an estimated one million lives in the next fifty years alone. Even more, no doubt, were saved from serious injury by the humble set-up.
Now, as we near the 60th anniversary of the three-point seat belt, every manufacturer fits them as standard and they protect a vast number of people from injury or worse on a daily basis.
The concept of using some form of harness or restraint in a vehicle was not pioneered by Volvo, that said – and even the three-point configuration itself wasn’t unexplored territory.
STRAPPING IN FOR SAFETY AND SECURITY
When the first steam-powered trains began thundering along their tracks, in the early 1800s, engineers began ways to tackle the new safety issues that arose. Among the topics discussed were methods to help secure the passengers, should the worst happen, which is reported to have resulted in the development of the lap belt.
As technology advanced and vehicle speeds increased, the concept of fitting a belt became increasingly prominent. In particular, during World War I, belts and harnesses were used to secure both pilots and gunners in their aircraft.
It wasn’t until car ownership started becoming far more common that the safety belt made its way into the automotive world in earnest. In the late 1930s, the number of vehicles on American roads had risen at a dramatic rate. Unsurprisingly, in conjunction with the ever-increasing power outputs of passenger vehicles at the time, the accident rate was skyrocketing.
Campaigns for improved safety, and governmental concerns about the number of people being killed and injured, motivated some manufacturers to introduce simple lap belts. American manufacturer Nash, for example, offered optional lap belts in 1949; not long after, official legislation prompted many more to make lap belts available in 1955.
Saab also introduced standard-fit lap belts in 1958 but the degree of protection afforded was limited – and a more effective alternative was needed.
A STRAIGHTFORWARD AND EFFECTIVE WAY TO BOOST SAFETY
Volvo’s engineers, seeking a way to improve safety in the late 1950s, had adopted a new two-point seat belt called the ‘Vattenfall type’. It had been conceived by engineers at the Swedish company Vattenfall, following a study into injuries afflicting its employees, and consisted of just a diagonal belt. This, which emulated some earlier designs, offered improved restraint compared to a lap belt and reduced head injuries.
An engineer who had just joined Volvo, called Nils Bohlin (pictured above), took this concept and expanded upon it by extending the single strap to run through a buckle and over the driver’s waist – locating them securely in the seat and stopping them sliding out from under the diagonal belt. This echoed a similar three-point concept from America but was more straightforward and supportive and, more importantly, it could be buckled up in one smooth motion with a single hand.
Bohlin’s design of three-point seat belt was comfortable, safe and simple to use; as a result, drivers were more likely to use it. His perfected layout was quickly employed and, before long, it was responsible for saving myriad lives. Seat belt usage quickly increased, and – in the UK, for example – it was mandatory for front-seat occupants by 1983.
While other restraint and safety systems have followed Bohlin’s three-point belt, such as airbags and anti-lock brakes, the simple seat belt remains the most important safety innovation in the history of the car. Here’s to its next sixty years of securing, protecting and saving countless people.
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