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Buckle Up: The History of Seatbelts

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Car Seat-belt lock unlock safety secure seat belt strap
Despite their ordinary appearance, seat belts have an intriguing origin story
Photo: The News Wheel

It’s easy to take modern seat belts for granted — but they weren’t always a standard safety feature in vehicles. Here’s a brief glimpse at the fascinating history of car seat belts.

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The evolution of the seat belt

Though you might think that seat belts — and mandatory seat belt laws — have been around as long as automobiles, the first seat belt wasn’t invented until the 19th century. Edward J. Claghorn of New York was granted the first safety belt patented (US Patent 312,085) on Feb. 10, 1885. This simple belt was a mere lap strap that used hooks and other attachments to secure people to a fixed object.

The modern seat belt made its first appearance almost 75 years later in 1959, when Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt. Volvo was the first automaker to integrate this design across its entire lineup. The company even sacrificed billions of dollars to share Bohlin’s design with other automakers.  

The development of seat belt laws

seat belt
Modern vehicles just wouldn’t be as safe without three-point seat belts
Photo: cfarnsworth via Pixabay

Though consumers were becoming more aware of the importance of seat belts, this safety feature still remained optional in the majority of American cars. The U.S. Congress finally recognized the mounting number of deaths due to car accidents without seat belts, passing a new minimum federal standard for safety belts in 1963 to help improve passenger safety.

A year after setting these standards, the U.S. Commerce Department then adopted several regulations in regards to seat belt adoption, usage, and testing. Many of these regulations were ones that the Society of Automotive Engineers had previously issued.

In 1968, the U.S. passed the Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, which required all new vehicles to have seat belts. After that, states established seat belt laws that complemented this national mandate.  

Though these laws differ from state to state, the first mandatory law that required vehicle occupants to wear their seat belts came into effect on Dec. 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.

Seat belts have definitely come a long way since the 19th century. And, while it’s important to use seat belts, it’s also important to clean them. Brush up on these tips for sanitizing your vehicle’s seat belts, then discover some extra reasons to wear a seat belt when you’re riding in the car.  

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