The Doctor Tells The "Seatbelt Story"
One fine early-spring day Dabney was in his garage. Looking from the front seat of his latest acquisition, a 1940 Ford sedan, he saw the Doctor pour himself a cup of coffee and saunter over to where Dabney was working.
"How's it going, Doc?" saluted Dabney. "What do you think of this old '40?"
"It's pretty nice all right," replied the Doctor.
"I think it might be one of a kind," said Dabney.
"Why so?" asked the Doctor.
"This car has factory-installed seat belts," said Dabney. "I have the original sales receipt in the glove box and the belts were a $10 special option."
"Boy, that's rare," said the Doctor. "You won't find many pre-1955 cars with seat belts in them."
"I wonder how many cars were equipped with seat belts before this one," said Dabney. "There surely had to be people who were safety-conscious back in those days."
"Well, since you're speaking on the subject, I happen to know a little of the history of seatbelts," said the Doctor. "You interested?"
Dabney knew he'd be in for one of those lengthy lectures for which the Doctor is well know, but his curiosity overcame his impatience. "Sure, Doc, go ahead," Dabney replied.
The Doctor began. "Long before the motoring age, safety-minded individuals tried various tethering devices (usually ropes) in an attempt to protect people from being thrown off carriages and carts. Records of such mishaps date back to 1414, when Pope Johannes XXIII was thrown onto the snow when his carriage overturned. In 1546, Martin Luther's widow was thrown from her carriage and into a puddle of muddy water when her horse was spooked. She later died of pneumonia.
The first known patent for a vehicular seat belt dates from 1885. It was granted in the U.S. to Edward Claghorn, who attempted to sell it to the tourist trade. A French inventor created the first adjustable lap and diagonal chest belt in 1903, but it wasn't until the 1920s that they were used in motorsports, their use popularized by Barney Oldfield. By the 1930s American medical professionals began to campaign for the fitting and use of seatbelts in automobiles.
The first automobile to offer factory-installed lap belts was the 1949 Nash, but the option was removed for the 1950 models. It wasn't until 1955 that Ford and Chrysler offered optional lap belts in their 1956 models. Ford started a campaign advocating the standardization of seat belt installation but it was retracted one year later, the victim of widespread indifference.
Federal legislation in the early 1960s caused the automobile industry to design safety, in the form of seat belts, into their products but it wouldn't be until the 1964 model year that front seat lap belts would become mandatory. Three-point belts became mandatory in 1968, although they were widely used in aircraft 25 years earlier.
Credit should be given to the Swedes, however, for the voluntary use of seatbelts in automobiles. In the early 1950s the State Power Board assigned its engineering people to providing better occupational protection in their fleet of vehicles. Two engineers, Bengt Odelgard and Per-Olof Weman, were assigned to study the mechanisms of injuries and design protective measures to minimize them. Their studies precipitated the construction of the modern automotive seat belt.
If any individual has a claim to the title of 'Father of the automotive seat belt' it would have to be Stig Lingren, Chief Surgeon and Associate Professor of medicine and advisor to the State Power Board's seat belt group. In 1957 Dr. Lindgren presented the idea of equipping automobiles with seatbelts to Gunnar Engellau, then president of Volvo. The company embraced the idea and equipped certain 1958 models with the devices. Seat belts, since then, have saved the lives of millions of people."
"That's really fascinating," said Dabney.
"It is an interesting bit of history all right," said the Doctor, "but the biggest problem with safety belts is always going to be getting people to wear them."