by Kathryn Hadley
Almost exactly 50 years ago today, the first car to be produced with a standard fitted three-point safety belt rolled off the Volvo production lines in Sweden, on August 13th 1959. The three-point safety belt was invented by the Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin (1920-2002) who was employed at the time as Volvo’s first ever safety engineer.
It is estimated that there are 600 million cars on the roads today. Over the past 50 years the safety belt is believed to have saved one million lives. In reality, Bohlin’s invention was not entirely novel and the history of the safety belt dates back more than 50 years.
The safety belt was first invented at the beginning of the 19th century by the English aeronautical engineer Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) for his glider, which successfully transported human beings for the first time. Over a century later, in 1949, the American car company Nash began to offer seatbelts to consumers and they were fitted as an option in some Ford models for the first time in 1955. In 1958, the Swedish firm Saab was the first to fit seatbelts as standard, but they were two-point belts that simply restrained the chest. An early three-point safety belt restraining the chest and the lap by an additional belt had, however, previously been designed by two Americans, Roger Griswold and Hugh De Haven, in 1951. However, once again, the buckle remained in the middle.
Nils Bohlin was the first to design a three-point safety belt that fastened by the occupant’s hip rather than over the abdomen. Buckles, which were previously placed over the abdomen, often caused internal injuries in high-speed crashes. Bohlin had previously worked for the aircraft maker Saab where he helped to develop ejection seats and used his experience there to design a model that would be easy and fast to use.
Bohlin was quoted in an article on the website of The Independent:
‘I realised both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with
one strap across the chest and one across the hips. The belt also needed an
immovable anchorage point for the buckle by the occupant's hip, so it could hold
the body properly during a collision. It was a matter of finding a solution that
was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand.’
Consumers remained reluctant to pay for safety belts and Volvo’s system was initially only fitted to cars for the Swedish market. In 1963, three-point safety belts were fitted as standard for the first time worldwide. It became compulsory to wear a seatbelt in Britain in 1983. It became compulsory for rear passengers to wear seatbelts in 1989, for children, and 1991, for adults. Bohlin was inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame for his invention in 1999. In 2002 he was also inducted in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
For further information on the beginnings of the motor car industry, read our article The Early Days of Motoring