Se­cur­ing

The three-point seat­belt has been sav­ing lives for 50 years, re­ports PAUL GOVER

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page -

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

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