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AUTO HISTORY

Starting to Click: A History of Automotive Seatbelts - Page 2

This side of the pond Americans Roger Griswold and Hugh De Haven patented their CIR-Griswold Restraint in 1951 (#2710649). It was a three-point safety belt with a middle buckle. The three-point belt was a single expandable belt that covered both shoulder and lap. In event of collision, the belt would spread the impact over chest, pelvis, and shoulders. DeHaven was also responsible for inventing the inertia reel, a locking mechanism to tighten the belt when a passenger is thrown forward.

DeHaven's interest in seatbelts was sparked by an early personal experience. On a training exercise during WWI pilot DeHaven collided with another plane mid-air. Because his cockpit remained intact, he survived. He analyzed his own and other accidents and in 1939 recommended that pilots wear helmets and shoulder belts. He continued his analysis, eventually finding that at even 15 mph head injury could occur if the object hit was unyielding (hard ground, ice, etc.). On the other hand, if shielding of some sort provided a pilot or driver sufficient protection, much higher velocities would not result in head injury. Because of DeHaven's impassioned pleas for seatbelts and his theory that passengers could be safely "packaged" into the car, car manufacturers were once again hearing about the value of safety equipment.

With so many more cars on the road after the War, car-crash injuries and fatalities were at an all-time high. In 1946 President Truman convened a Highway Safety Conference which, among other things, issued safety recommendations which it agreed to update annually. Meanwhile, more organizations began to pay greater attention to the heightened need for automotive safety. In 1953, the Colorado State Medical Society supported installing lap belts in all vehicles. In 1954, the Sports Car Club of America (precursor to NASCAR) required all competing racers to wear lap belts. A year later the Society of Automotive Engineers appointed their first Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee. It was in 1955, as well, that California became the first state to require all new cars to come equipped with lap belts.

During WWII General Eisenhower had been impressed with the German autobahn system as a method of national defense. It had been much easier to take out the rail system than to bring road traffic to a halt. As President he advocated strongly for a similar road system in the U.S. and in 1954, $175 million was authorized to start construction on a national interstate highway system. That was also the year for Ike, however, to sponsor another White House Conference on Traffic Safety. At least in part the military was behind that decision as they discovered more service men were dying in road accidents than in the Korean War. Among many solutions offered was the adoption of the relatively inexpensive seatbelt, the use of which one study claimed could save more than 5,000 lives a year.

In September 1955, Ford sponsored a National Safety Forum and Crash Demonstration with a great number of accident prevention specialists in attendance. John O. Moore, Director of Automotive Crash Injury Research at Cornell, presented a review of the earlier DeHaven findings, concluding that car occupants are twice as safe in an accident if they remain in the car. A combination of seat belts and safety door latches would go a long way in that regard.

Ford had consulted with Cornell, conducted crash tests, and invested millions in developing a package of safety features called Life Guard Design. They demonstrated the results of their safety improvements with crash tests conducted with test dummies on new Fairlanes — and hoped that other manufacturers would join them in making cars safer. The heavily advertised Life Guard package, which included front and rear lap belts, was marketed to purchasers of 1956 Fords as a way to protect themselves and their families. Any number of engineers and inventors had contributed to the safety features. The two-point, quick release AutoCrat Safety Belt Ford used, for example, has been credited to William Myron Moe and brothers Kenneth and Bob Ligon.

As Ford stressed safety, GM continued using appealing ladies to advertise power under the hood. The buying public concluded that if Ford had to add so many safety features to its cars, they must have been more dangerous than other cars. Ford saw its sales plummet, with Chevrolet taking a convincing lead. That prompted Henry Ford II to say, "McNamara [Ford's President] is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars." Ford's safety campaign had been a disaster; safety didn't sell. Ford shifted its ad campaign and did not offer seat belts as standard equipment in its '57 models.

With its '56 models both Chrysler and Buick also offered seat belts — but as an option. While the seat belts were an option, it was estimated that only about 1% of American drivers used them. Dealers certainly didn't push them, and while safety experts claimed it would only cost 50 cents to install mounts so drivers could add the belts themselves, manufacturers just weren't interested.

One man who persisted in arguing for seat belt usage nonetheless was Dr. C. Hunter Shelden. After lengthy study he was quite critical of the unsafe way in which vehicle interiors were made. In the November 5, 1955 Journal of the American Medical Association he proposed a number of urgently needed safety features. Noting the clear correspondence between seat belt use and crash survival, for instance, he strongly recommended use of a retractable safety belt. Organizations like the American Safety Belt Institute (formed in 1956) and the American Seat Belt Council (1961) did their part to see that seat belt manufacturers abided by uniform production and quality standards. That proved especially prescient when seat belts were mandated for all cars in 1968.

In the long run Volvo proved itself more committed to safety than Ford had been. In 1956, it brought out as standard equipment two-point, cross-chest diagonal belts for the front seat and optional seatbelts for back-seat passengers. Then in 1958, Nils Bohlin, Volvo's first safety engineer, developed one of the most effective safety devices of all time, one credited with saving more than a million lives. It was the three-point safety belt using one continuous belt. One section ran diagonally across the body while another section crossed the lap — for both lap and chest restraint. The single belt was anchored to the car's frame by three connections. With just one motion and a simple click into a side buckle, passengers were protected from serious injury. Volvo introduced the belt as standard equipment in 1959 and sent Bohlin to the U.S. to market the product to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Bohlin later secured a U. S. patent (# 3,043,625) for his safety device, one you likely use on a daily basis. Bohlin had worked on ejection seats at Saab before he joined Volvo and once explained that whereas pilots were willing to put on most anything to keep themselves safe, drivers didn't want to be made uncomfortable even for a short while. Lap belts then in use were uncomfortable, with no inertia reels to enable free movement. There was also the problem of twisted, tangled belts, belts falling through the seats onto the floor, etc. The seat belt Bohlin designed was both efficient and comfortable.

In 1958, another Swedish car manufacturer Saab installed front seat belts in their popular, sporty GT 750. When the car was shown at the New York motor show, seat belts suddenly seemed far more acceptable, maybe even cool. The Europeans were not alone in making improved seat belts, though. American Glenn Sheren patented a car seat belt (#2855215) in 1958. Among the objectives claimed in his patent application were these: simple installation, connectors that minimized damage to the belting, and even distribution of shock.

Whatever your view of the role of the federal government, in 1959 it got thoroughly involved in automotive safety. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary for Labor, wrote an article in which he argued that car companies needed to step up to the plate and reduce car crashes and injuries. Interestingly, one of his aides was Ralph Nader whose writings later claimed national attention. 1959 was the year, too, that Congress passed a law requiring that all cars comply with certain standards of safety.

In 1961, New York was the first state to require that manufacturers provide at least anchor points for front seat belts on all cars sold. Other states followed their lead and introduced similar legislation. While most car manufacturers, claiming cost considerations, were opposed to doing so, there was one exception. The first U.S. auto maker to include seat belts in all its vehicles was Studebaker — which included them as a delete option in 1963. By then Volvo was also including Bohlin's three-point seatbelt in its cars sold in the U.S.

Some portion of the U.S. public was convinced of the importance of safety measures like seat belts. From 1960 to 1963 sales nearly quadrupled. All auto companies offered seat belts as optional equipment at minimal cost — from about $17 to $22. Gas stations were in the business of installing belts at a charge of $6 per belt, and sales were brisk. Whereas in the mid-fifties there were eight belt manufacturers, by 1963 their numbers swelled to more than eighty. Because there was such money to be made, not all of those were honest.

1964 was the year in which most U. S. cars came with front seat lap belts; by 1965, all states had laws requiring them. Lap belts were still the belts of choice — despite medical evidence that in accident conditions lap belts had the potential to cause separation of the lumbar vertebrae.

Nader's detailed research was published in 1965 as "Unsafe at Any Speed", a book that uncovered Detroit's resistance to adding automotive safety features. It highlighted the prevailing view amongst car makers that safety problems were more attributable to road conditions and driver incompetence than to harder-to-fix car interiors. His arguments made a lot of sense to a small but vocal group of consumer advocates, legislators, and attorneys who in 1966 insisted that the car industry make safer cars. Senate hearings investigating industry practices served to focus attention on the industry's apparent refusal to improve vehicle safety. When faced with testimony from doctors, engineers, crash investigators, and others that there were safety improvements available that could save thousands of lives, industry leaders insisted that customers just weren't buying safety. Henry Ford II only worsened the industry position when he claimed that the industry would be shut down completely if it had to make safety-related "unreasonable, arbitrary, and technically unfeasible" product changes. In light of that sort of statement, Senators were justified in their disbelief that manufacturers would, as they claimed, make cars safer through voluntary self-regulation.

When President Johnson suggested it was time for federal regulations to control car safety performance, Congress unanimously passed The Highway Safety Act and The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, creating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The federal government had been given authority to regulate car and highway standards, including a demand that the Department of Transportation move quickly to force car manufacturers install seat belts in new cars. After twisting a few arms, Washington persuaded Detroit to add safety features on 1966 model cars, one of those features being front seat belts. A year later back seat belts were added, as well, and for the 1974 model year, three-point, continuous-loop seat belts were required.

Although the feds required seat belts to come installed in new cars, they could not require drivers and passengers to use them. That was a matter for the states. Most people continued to ignore them. Seat belt usage was calculated at less than 15% of the driving public. Thus it was that in the sixties the National Ad Council began a 25-year campaign to reduce national traffic fatalities. Its "Buckle up for safety, buckle up" jingle was featured in radio and television ads and resulted in a significant increase in seat belt usage. There were also attempts to make seat belts more comfortable. Since comfortable often meant slack, however, those versions did little to minimize injuries. States did continue to pass laws requiring drivers and passengers to buckle up, though. By 1989, 34 states had such laws on the books and by 1995, every state except New Hampshire had them. The next step was "Click it or ticket" laws which allowed police officers to pull a driver over if s/he wasn't wearing a seat belt. The National Safety Council, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, has promoted the adoption of these laws with its Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, and 20 states now have them.

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