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AUTO HISTORY

Starting to Click: A History of Automotive Seatbelts

In olden days horse and cart drivers tried to figure how to keep passengers (and themselves, of course) from being thrown off and trampled by their horses. Most often they used ropes or leather straps to connect person and cart.

In the late 1800s, Sir George Cayley, a wealthy land owner interested in the principles of flight, invented a kind of glider and lap belts to keep his pilots in it. He even asked his coachman to fly one of his test flights — which resulted in a crash landing and this reported exchange: "Sir George, I wish to give notice. I was hired to drive, not to fly."

It was in 1885 that a New York City man Edward J. Claghorn devised the first U.S. patented (# 312,085) vehicular seat belt. You gotta love his reasoning: his belt was meant to keep tourists safe. Looking much like a present-day climber's harness, it was designed to secure the passenger to a fixed object. As cars began appearing in America during the early 1900s some drivers and passengers also used crude forms of seat belts not as safety measures but to keep themselves from falling out as they traversed bumpy terrain.

Seat Belts in Classic Cars?

For vehicles manufactured prior to the requirement for seat belts, Federal laws do not require seat belts. The same is true for most states. Because state laws vary, however, you'll want to check your jurisdiction.

While some drivers appreciate the freedom and period fidelity associated with driving without a seat belt, others want to put belts in their cars before ever steering them out to the highway. It's up to you. Here are three things the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration asks you to remember, though:

  1. Every 12.5 minutes, someone dies in a car accident; every 9 seconds someone is injured;
  2. Three of five people killed in car accidents could survive if they were wearing seat belts; and
  3. Seat belts save an estimated 9,500 lives in the United States each year.

Collector car clubs and car show organizers are unlikely to deduct points if you install seat belts in your vintage car. To the contrary, most hobby clubs encourage the installation and use of seat belts. The Antique Automobile Club of America, for instance, maintains strict standards for training judges and judging car shows. Their guidelines specify that points should not be deducted for adding seat belts to a car.

If you have a car from the 1950s or 1960s that was originally marketed with seat belts as a factory accessory, you may be able to locate original-style safety belts for it since there are a number of vendors making reproduction belts.

When Orville Wright, that pioneer of flight, gave flight demonstrations in 1908 and '09 he was buckled in so he could control the aircraft better as it bounced along the rough, rock-strewn fields used for takeoffs. In 1911, famed U.S. army aviator Benjamin Foulois followed suit and had the cavalry saddle shop sew a belt for the seat of Wright Flyer Signal Corps 1. A French pilot in 1913, Adolphe Pegoud, was one of the first to fly upside down and, not surprisingly, also favored a seat belt. It was not until the early 1930s, however, that seat belts were widely used in aircraft.

The first man to drive 65 mph on a race track was famed racer Barney Oldfield, the man Henry Ford first hired in 1902 to race his cars. Also a movie star, Oldfield proved in the 1913 silent Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life that a car could beat a train. In 1923 when he raced the Indy 500, his racecar team decided the daredevil should have a "safety harness" and contacted the lrvin Air Chute Company to get one.

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, mass-produced cars dotted the landscape and car accidents occurred more and more frequently. About 30,000 people died each year. A group of medical professionals, alarmed at the wasted lives, added lap belts to their own cars and after testing their effectiveness, urged car manufacturers to make them standard equipment on all cars. This was also a time when plastic surgery was a burgeoning specialty and after repeated late-night calls to horrific accident scenes plastic surgeon Claire L. Straith began taking a camera along to photograph crashes and analyze their causes. While his primary focus (yes, this Claire was a man) was on the elimination of sharp edges on dashboards, he also argued vehemently for the use of seatbelts. Joining him in the crusade to convince manufacturers of the need for seatbelts was the prominent physician C. J. Strickland who later founded the Automobile Safety League of America.

These men on a mission were convinced that something had to change to protect the motoring public, even though that public evinced little interest in safety. In a speech made to the AMA conference in 1939, Straith had this to say: "What I consider one of the most pertinent problems of present-day medicine [is] the proper care and management of the ever-growing numbers of victims of motor car accidents. The ability of the engineer to design, and of the industrialist to make easily available, ever-speedier motor vehicles far surpasses the intellectual ability of the average man to utilize them safely."

People were beginning to get the message. In 1934, to prove the safety of its cars, General Motors conducted a barrier impact test. And after meeting one-on-one with Straith, several manufacturers began making improvements with more padded interiors. Talk of safety improvements continued into the forties when servicemen returning from WWII lined up to purchase new cars. More cars on the road meant more automotive accidents. About this time (1946, actually) Preston Tucker formed his corporation to develop the visionary Tucker. He and his designers were struck by Straith's descriptions of disfiguring injuries and intended to offer seat belts as part of their safety package. Although Tucker believed in their value, one of his assistants purportedly convinced him that including seatbelts in the car would make customers view it as less safe than other models. While early Tuckers came with seat belts, they were eliminated in later production.

Safety just didn't appear to come high on the list for American car purchasers. Nash was the first car to offer factory-installed lap belts, bolted to the car frame, in 1949. Some customers purportedly tore them out and cut them off with razor blades. Of the 48,000 cars bought with seat belts, only 1,000 reported using them routinely. In 1950 the option was removed. As Vice President for automotive research and engineering Meade F. Moore would later explain, the public did not accept seat belts, claiming they were a nuisance.

In the early fifties, traffic fatalities were on the rise in Sweden, as well. In reaction, Sweden's State Power Board asked its engineers to provide more driver protections in its vehicle fleet. Two engineers in particular — Bengt Odelgard and Per-Olof Weman — studied what could be done, and are now credited with the analysis that led to the creation of the standard safety belt Volvo would introduce in the late 50s.

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