Seat belt patented: July 10, 1962

An invention that will save more lives than almost any other is awarded a U.S. patent.  It’s the “three-point seat belt”—better known as the lap and shoulder belt-- and it’s the creation of Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin.  A former aviation engineer who worked on ejector seats in planes,  Bohlin is, at the time, the first safety engineer at Volvo, which had started installing his belt in its cars in 1959.  But other makes of cars that have seat belts are still using the single strap version—one that crosses only the stomach with the buckle right in the middle.  It’s a design that often results in severe internal injuries in high-speed crashes.

That single strap belt had been around for a while. It was offered in Nash models as early as 1949  and had been included in some Fords beginning in 1955.  And actually, a three-point safety belt had been patented in 1951 by two Americans, Roger Griswold and Hugh De Haven. But their design had the buckle in the middle. Bohlin, using his knowledge of ejector seats, came up with a version that would restrain the human body as safely as possible under extreme conditions and still be easy to use. .

''I realized both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and one across the hips,'' Bohlin told an interviewer. ''The belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down beside the occupant's hip, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand.''

Volvo allowed the design to be used by other car companies and in 1966, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring that starting in 1968, safety belts would have to be installed in all new American cars.  A study presented by Bohlin in 1967 provided plenty of evidence to back up that decision.  Based on analysis of 28,000 accidents, he and his team found that when used, the lap and shoulder belt reduced the risk of injury or death in accidents by as much as 75 percent.  It also determined that drivers not wearing belts died in crashes at all speeds, but that no one wearing belts was fatally injured in accident speeds below 60 mph.

Still, the majority of Americans didn’t bother to buckle up until 1984, when the first state laws were passed penalizing drivers and passengers who didn’t wear seat belts.  Today, only New Hampshire doesn’t have a mandatory seat belt law.  The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the belts reduce the risk of deaths in car crashes by at least 45 percent and estimates that they save more than 10,000 lives a year.  Overall, according to Volvo’s estimates, Bohlin’s safety belt has saved more than a million lives.

On the day that he died in September, 2002, Nils Bohlin was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

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