Today we all know that seat belts save lives. Their effectiveness has been proven over and over again, and they are required by federal and state laws. But for the first several decades of motor vehicle use, no one used safety restraints in cars. And even once seat belts came into use, they were an optional feature for quite a while. How did we get from non-existent seat belts to where we are today? Find out in our history of the seat belt.
Edward J. Claghorn patented the first seat belt-like device in 1885. He did not envision his “safety belt” being used in vehicles, though. Instead, he described potential uses for workmen such as painters, telegraph workers, and firemen who would need to secure themselves while working high above the ground.
Claghorn’s invention never gained much traction, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that the idea of seat belts in cars came around again. In the early ’30s, two physicians named Claire Straith and C. J. Strickland became concerned about the growing number of fatalities from car crashes. The lap belt was one of their primary suggestions for how to prevent these deaths. They installed them in their own cars and urged others to do the same. Very few followed their example, though, and cars continued to be manufactured without seat belts.
It was not until the 1950s that seat belts gained significant attention from auto manufacturers and the public. Nash Motors introduced seat belts in some of its models in 1950, but public enthusiasm for the concept remained low and other manufacturers were slow to follow.
In 1956, Volvo, Ford, and Chrysler finally introduced seat belts as an optional feature in their models. In 1958, Nils Bohlin, a design engineer for Volvo, patented the first 3-point seat belt design. The 3-point belts were included in Volvo models the following year. Seat belts were not standard in their U.S. models until 1963, however.
Seat belts gained popularity with the public throughout the 1960s, but were still an optional feature. While more and more manufacturers were including front-seat lap belts as standard, they were not legally required until 1965, and then only by state laws, not federal.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NFTSA) was established in 1966. Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were efforts to pass federal requirements for an automatic restraint system in all vehicles, but these efforts failed due to pushback from the auto industry.
There was considerable public debate about the relative merits of seat belts throughout the 1970s, and in 1981, the CDC reported that only 11% of people used their seat belts when in a car.
In 1983 the insurance industry got involved. State Farm Insurance took the NHTSA to court over the issue of automatic restraint systems. They won, and the NHTSA was required to introduce new regulations.
In the mid to late ’80s, enthusiasm for seat belt use and regulation increased dramatically. By 1989 most states had passed seat belt use laws. By 1995, New Hampshire was the only state without a seat belt law, and they still have not passed such a law for adults to this day.
Where We Stand (or Sit)
Seat belt use continued to increase over the next several decades, thanks in large part to public safety initiatives, reaching a high of 85% in 2010. This still leaves a significant number of drivers and passengers at increased risk. The CDC reports that seat belts reduce the risk of death in a crash by 45% and the risk of serious injury by 50%.
To improve seat belt use, they recommend that more states pass primary enforcement laws, meaning that drivers can be stopped for a seat belt offense. With secondary enforcement laws, drivers can only be ticketed for seat belt use if they are pulled over for another offense. 19 states, including Virginia, still do not have primary seat belt enforcement laws.
The evidence is clear: wearing your seat belt keeps you safer in the event of a crash. Don’t wait for the law to catch up. Make sure to wear your seat belt every time you get in a car.