Tim Shults
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Buckle Up: The History of Seatbelts

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History of Seat Belts

In modern-day vehicles, it’s likely you would notice if a seatbelt was missing. While we have come to take these safety restraints for granted, they weren’t always a standard safety feature in vehicles. Since the seatbelt was first invented, it has evolved over time from a single strap that used hooks to secure a person to the three-point belt we have today.

While it might seem like seatbelts—and mandatory seatbelt laws—have been around as long as automobiles, the first seatbelt wasn’t actually invented until the 19th century. Edward J. Claghorn of New York was granted the first safety belt patented (US Patent 312,085) on February 10, 1885. This simple belt was a mere lap strap that used hooks and other attachments to secure people to a fixed object. From this patent, the seatbelt was born.

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How Did the Seatbelt Originate?

The modern seatbelt made its first appearance almost 75 years later in 1959, when Nils Bohlin—an engineer at Volvo—invented the three-point seatbelt. It was Volvo that then encouraged the use of seatbelts by becoming the first manufacturer to offer standard seatbelts in every one of its automobiles. The Swedish carmaker even sacrificed billions of dollars, refusing to patent the technology so other automakers could use the technology. This helped establish Volvo as the safety powerhouse it currently is known as today, while also increasing the safety of automobiles.

While consumers were becoming more aware of the importance of seatbelts, this safety feature still remained an optional feature in the majority of American cars. The United States’ Congress finally recognized the mounting number of deaths due to car accidents without seatbelts, passing a new minimum federal standard for safety belts in 1963″so that passenger injuries in motor vehicle accidents can be kept to a minimum” (77 Stats. 361). A year after setting these standards, the US Commerce Department then adopted several regulations in regards to seatbelt adoption, usage, and testing—many of which the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) had previously issued.

Since the passage of the first seatbelt federal standards, the laws regarding safety restraints slowly evolved into the seatbelt laws we known today. While these laws in the US change depending on the state, the first mandatory law that required vehicle occupants to wear their seatbelts came into effect on December 1, 1984 in New York. Since then, every state has passed its own law that requires the use of seat belts with Maine and South Dakota becoming the last two states to do so in 1995.

Though seat belt usage isn’t nearly as high as it should be—according to a recent study, 1-in-3 people in Europe don’t wear rear seatbelts—the number of lives this safety feature has saved is countless. So the next time you’re in a car, don’t for get to buckle up!

Related: Why we need to end distracted driving

Sources: History Channel & About.com