The three-point seatbelt has been saving lives for 50 years, reports PAUL GOVER
MANY millions of people have been saved from death or serious injury in the past 50 years by the humble three-point seatbelt.
It is no exaggeration to say it is the single biggest safety advance in the history of motoring.
Airbags look sexier and electronic stability control can prevent a car from crashing in the first place, but the installation of three-point safety belts from 1959 stopped people being thrown around car cabins in even the most minor fender-bender.
In Australia, seatbelts have performed better than anywhere else because Victoria led the world in making them compulsory. Since then, Australia has led the way with the introduction of rear seatbelts, baby restraints and, most recently, booster seats for toddlers.
‘‘It’s incredibly significant. In all the things we’ve done, nothing has made such a step forward as the seatbelt,’’ says Laurie Sparke, who led the safety team at GM Holden until his retirement and is recognised as one of Australia’s most talented and committed engineers.
‘‘If I can remember my numbers now, a lap-sash belt allows an occupant to survive 40 per cent of crashes that otherwise would have been fatal. An airbag adds another 20 per cent.’’
Sparke is so convinced about seatbelts that he can rattle off the basic history without thinking.
‘‘It was 1959. The man who invented them was a Swede, Nils Bohlin,’’ Sparke says.
Bohlin gets special thanks this week with the 50th anniversary of his seatbelt yesterday. His invention is now recognised as one of eight patents to have had the greatest significance for humanity in the 100 years from 1885 to 1985.
Bohlin invented the belt while working for Volvo, a move that helped cement the company’s reputation for a commitment to safety.
Volvo has been at the front, or close to the front (sharing many honours with Mercedes-Benz) ever since.
In recent years, many companies have touted their safety credentials. Renault pushed hard on electronicstability control and Subaru was strong on the benefits of all-wheel drive. But when most people think about vehicle safety, they think of Volvo.
What makes the seatbelt work, and work so well, is it’s easy to use. It takes only one hand to fasten, and developments in the past 50 years have mostly centred on making it even more convenient.
‘‘In reality, the only things that have happened in 50 years have been convenience things to encourage people to wear them,’’ Sparke says.
‘‘The fixed stalk makes the buckle easier to find, the retractable belt makes it easy to wear, adjustable top mounts make it more comfortable.
‘‘It was not until the pre-tensioner that the performance improved.’’
Changes to seatbelts have been extensive, from the location systems to the way they are mounted and even the types of webbing.
BMW is one of the coupe companies that now has a retractable arm to bring the belt to the driver and passenger. Several companies mount their belts with the buckle on the outside in the rear to give better protection, and Mercedes mounts the belt to the seat instead of the body structure in its SL.
Not surprisingly, the automotive seatbelt was transferred from aviation. The first aircraft with a lap safety belt was flown by Adolphe Pegoud, who was one of the first pilots to fly a plane upside down.
Many cars had lap belts from the 1920s, but it took Bohlin and Volvo — which, like Benz, makes its patents available free of charge— to make the belt convenient and accepted.
Laurie Sparke still remembers his first seatbelt experience.
‘‘My very first car, the first thing I did was go out and buy some seatbelts. Unfortunately, the reason I put them in was so I could drive faster,’’ he says.
‘‘The belts meant I didn’t have to hang on to the steering wheel in my MG TC when I was going around corners. At age 18 I was infallible, I thought I didn’t need to be protected.’’
The Australian move to the belt era came in 1970 with Victoria’s landmark legislation. Traffic fatalities fell 18 per cent in the first year. NSW introduced compulsory belt wearing the following year and today everyone except taxi drivers is legally required to wear a seatbelt, front and back, even in buses.
Many other countries have similar legislation, though in some states in the US, belt wearing runs at less than 5 per cent.
The future of the seatbelt looks secure. Some brands are even working on a seatbelt with a built-in airbag.
So far, moves to boost protection with four or five-point harnesses have failed because they are difficult to use.
At Volvo, there is ongoing research into a four-point belt that is easy to wear, as well as a motorised belt that tightens the belt and places the driver in the right position in potentially hazardous situations.
Fifty years into the life of the seatbelt, Volvo also has a safety mandate that runs through the core of the company. The aim of Volvo’s Mobility 2020 Vision is that no Volvo occupant will be seriously or fatally injured in a crash by 2020.
the invention of the three-point seatbelt by Swede Nils Bohlin has saved millions of lives