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Starting to Click: A History of Automotive Seatbelts

By Llewellyn Hedgbeth

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:

—Every 12.5 minutes, someone dies in a car accident; every 9 seconds someone is injured;

—Three of five people killed in car accidents could survive if they were wearing seat belts; and

—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.

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.

In the early 70s, manufacturers began using polyester rather than nylon for seat belts. It was lighter, more flexible, and stronger and was woven into two-inch wide belts that were significantly more comfortable. That was the decade, as well, when car makers added the bleep sound to alert drivers to buckle up. That also marked the time that Ford tried a new approach, largely to avoid having to install air bags or other passive restraints. They devised something known as the "interlock seat belt". You couldn't start the car unless you and any front-seat passenger first buckled their seat belts. It didn't matter that you might have sports gear, groceries, or a lovable pet in the seat beside you. Until they were buckled in, you weren't going anywhere. While the National highway Traffic Safety Administration had mandated these belts for all 1974 cars, folks complained — loudly — and it wasn't long before Congress outlawed the use of these special seat belts.

By 1975, most first-world countries required seat belts in all cars. Still, motorists had not yet internalized the need to use seat belts every time they got into their cars. Because of their failure to do so, automatic (or passive) seat belts were created. In 1973 Volkswagen announced a functional passive seat belt, one they first installed in their 1975 Rabbit. In 1977, Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams announced a requirement that, by 1983, all cars have either automatic seat belts or air bags. GM, in 1979, added automatic belts to the Chevette but sales were lackluster. (many people said that they felt "trapped" by the automatic belts.) Some makers installed a combination manual lap belt and automated shoulder belt, with the shoulder belt riding along a track in the door frame until it draped itself over the passenger. Other makers utilized a version that automated shoulder and lap belts, requiring driver and passenger to slide under the belt upon entry and exit. This proved particularly difficult for anyone who wore glasses; the seat belt invariably knocked them off. Never mind; it wasn't long before folks figured they could unhook the manual release and override the belt.

Mercedes-Benz was first to introduce pre-tensioners to seat belts on its 1981 S-Class. When car sensors detect an impending accident, an expanding gas is released that drives a piston and tenses the seat belt just before impact. In the U.S., Autoliv Corporation developed pre-tensioners in 1986 which can also lower the risk of "submarining", a condition in which a rider slides forward under the seatbelt when the belt is too loose.

U.S. auto makers contested the 1983 deadline for air bags or automatic safety belts. Under President Reagan, Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis tried to undo the passive restraint requirement in 1981. Ultimately, however, the Supreme Court ruled that he could not do so. Instead, Transportation issued a standard delaying the compliance date but adding that the "either air bags or safety belts" rule would not take effect if, within two years, enough states passed mandatory user laws. That left car makers with a conundrum: either wait for the inevitable "either or" mandate or push states to pass mandatory use laws. They chose to lobby state legislatures via an organization they set up called Traffic Safety Now. In the final analysis, however, an insufficient number of states had signed on by the deadline, leaving the "either or" choice.

Seeing the writing on the wall, in 1984 the Reagan administration under Transportation Secretary Dole reversed course and extended the original deadline, proposing that passive safety restraints be phased in by 1986. Car manufacturers, having spent their money in the campaign, were loathe to spend more on updated designs, so belts and air bags of the time were poorly engineered. In 1984, as manufacturers came to grips with the new requirements, GM included at no additional cost to new purchasers a one-year, $10,000 life insurance policy for anyone wearing GM-produced seat belts. (Wonder who thought that one up?) Eventually the automatic seat belts would be discontinued since reports arose of passengers whose airbags deployed and left them unable to free themselves from the automatic seat belt.

To increase the overall use of seat belts, in 1985, the Ad Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began airing ads starring crash test dummies Vince (the vet) and Larry (the newcomer) telling motorists to buckle up. When the ads, fast-paced and humorous, first came out, seat belt use was about 21%; a little more than a decade later it had climbed to 70%. Viewers cottoned to the notion that only dummies failed to use safety belts.

Perhaps familiarity with the celebrity crash dummies encouraged motorists to think about whether under-age children needed special restraints. All states now have child safety laws on the books requiring a baby or booster seat so the set belt can be buckled around seat and child. Buckling children in with adult seat belts is a hazard and is not permitted. New York became the first state to require seat belts in school buses in 1987. Other states now have the same requirement. Since September 1, 2007, all new cars sold in the U.S. require a lap and shoulder belt in the center rear seat, another improvement for older children likely to be sitting in the middle.

Nowadays about 85% of Americans wear seat belts, and manufacturers tout their automotive safety features to prospective customers. If a car accident results in a lawsuit, one of the questions asked of the plaintiff is whether or not he was wearing a seat belt. If not, he may be found to have contributed in some degree to the accident. When liability adjusters make their offers of settlement, they may also reduce the offer if the driver was not wearing a seat belt. There are also ongoing experiments to improve the seat belts we use. Ford is developing a stong, flexible, tightly-woven nylon belt, and Honeywell has moved from polyester to a new material it calls "Securus" that can stretch in a controlled manner during a crash to ease stress on the car's occupants.

Ford is also looking at bringing out inflatable rear belts that can help control head and neck motions, avoiding whiplash. The shoulder belt looks a little thicker than normal belts and contains an airbag that inflates with compressed air during a collision, further expanding the range in which the standard two-inch belt can absorb crash forces. It is a quasi-air bag for rear seat occupants. The lap belt does not inflate but when the signal is given to deploy front airbags, the rear inflatable belts deploy simultaneously.

Another possibility both Volvo and Ford are exploring is a four-point seat belt. The most promising model is a V4 or "belt and suspenders" design that is worn over the shoulders like knapsack straps attached to the backrest rather than the car frame, with a front buckle. With that design, however, there is still a possibility of "submarining" with the pelvis sliding under the lap belt under crash conditions. An alternate version of the four-point seat belt, also incorporated into the seat, is a cross-your-heart system in which shoulder belts criss-cross the chest. Both types of belt keep the torso still and lessen the chance of skull fracture but they may work too well, holding the upper body too rigid. Further investigation into greater flexibility is ongoing. Other systems being explored are three-point, belt-in-seat systems; a five-point system with two shoulder belts and the lap belt connected to a belt running between the legs, promising for reduction of side crash injuries; and even six-point (race car) or seven-point (airline pilots) systems.

One issue yet to be explored sufficiently is how to protect pets riding in cars, with either an attached leash or safety belt and carrier seat of some sort. Another is how we can utilize electronics better to make "smart" seat belts that react to crash conditions. Whatever direction these explorations take, we know beyond any doubt that seat belts save lives. They double our chance of surviving a crash and vastly improve our chance of walking away without serious injury. Their history to date has been a checkered one balancing responsibilities among manufacturers, drivers, and government officials. The bottom line, however, is that it takes all those players working together to make safety even more important than the latest styling changes.

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