By Sivan Goren
In this modern day of sophisticated airbag systems and Euro NCAP ratings, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t always so. The first safety belt was invented by English aeronautical engineer George Cayley in the early 19th century and was not used in cars, but rather to help keep pilots inside their gliders. In 1949, American car company Nash started offering seatbelts to consumers and in 1955, they were fitted as an option in some Ford models. But it was a Swedish inventor who took the original seatbelt a step further with a design so brilliant that it is still used today, catapulting vehicle safety into completely new territory. Here’s to 60 years of the three-point safety belt.
Ironically, Nils Bohlin, the Swedish engineer who invented the V-type three-point safety belt, began his career making sure occupants got chucked out instead of being held in: as an aircraft engineer at Saab, he developed ejection seats for pilots. It was only when he was hired as a safety engineer at Volvo in 1958 that he got to explore his interest in a phenomenon that was completely the opposite.
In the 1950s pilots and racing drivers wore harnesses, but seatbelts in everyday cars – if they were there at all – were generally nothing more than a two-point waist restraint which, in all honesty, often did more harm than good. Although the number of fatal accidents was on the rise, safety was not exactly a priority for most vehicle manufacturers. Volvo, however, had by the late ʼ50s developed a number of safety options, all relating to either preventing occupant impact or reducing the severity of said impact in the event of a collision. These items included collapsible steering column, padded dashboard and attachment points for diagonal two-point belts in the front seats. Yes, even back then Volvo was safety-conscious and had been fitting anchorages for two-point seatbelts in the front seats of its cars since 1957, but there was a fatal flaw in the design: the buckle of the so-called ‘diagonal belt’ was placed at the height of the occupant’s ribcage. Result? Instead of protecting the soft organs of the body, the buckle effectively mangled them.
Turns out that Volvo president Gunnar Engellau had himself lost a relative in a car accident – and more specifically, as a result of the inherent shortcomings of the two-point seatbelt. Engellau wanted a more effective solution and having worked with three-point harnesses in jet fighters, Bohlin seemed just the man for the job. The brief was to devise a solution that was both simple and ingenious. Oh, and just for an extra challenge, it had to be easy enough to get on using just one hand – so easy that even a child could buckle up. Piece of cake, then…
Bohlin realised that the key to getting it right was to design a belt that would spread the force of the impact across the chest, pelvis and shoulders rather than leaving one area to absorb all of it; a belt that would keep both the upper and lower body tightly in place, stay in position and not move when under load. To do this, he incorporated one diagonal belt across the upper body and another ‘lap belt’ over the hips that would attach to a low anchorage point next to the seat. The belt formed a ‘V’ shape, with the peak pointing down towards the floor.
Bohlin worked on his invention for about a year and tested it, and in 1959 he got his first patent. The very first car to receive a three-point belt was a Volvo PV 544 that was delivered to a dealer in Kristianstad on 13 August 1959. However, the first model to come standard with a three-point seatbelt was the 1959 Volvo 122. (Actually, just so you know, when it was first made in 1958, it had a two-point belt but was then replaced with the three-point seat belt the following year.)
Just to prove how safe these new belts were, a series of tests were carried out on all the seatbelt models that were available at the time. The results were undeniable: the three-point seatbelt was hands-down the safest and most effective of the lot. As a result, in 1963 Volvo introduced the belt to the USA and other international markets. The three-point seatbelt was now a standard feature in the front seats of all Volvos.
But here’s the bit that is truly mind-boggling. Realising how significant their creation was and what a positive impact (if you will pardon the pun) it could make, Bohlin and Volvo knew they could not in good conscience keep it to themselves and decided to share it with the world. Yes, you heard right, the patent was opened and made available to everyone. Do you honestly believe such a thing would have happened in today’s money-grabbing, profit-obsessed corporate world? I seriously doubt it…
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world caught on and within five years, three-point seatbelts began to appear in cars throughout Europe and America. Since then, these belts have saved countless lives and prevented or reduced the severity of injuries for many more, making this invention the most important safety device in the history of the automobile. In fact, German patent registrars named Bohlin’s invention as one of the eight patents that have had the greatest significance for humanity during the hundred years from 1885 to 1985.
Bohlin continued as a pioneer in vehicle safety during his time at Volvo. He retired in 1985 and received a gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science in 1995. In 1999, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and died in 2002 at the age of 82. Today, every single car that is manufactured worldwide is fitted with three-point seatbelt. I’d say that is a legacy worth more than any profit.