From the Skies to the Road: A Brief History of the Seat Belt

Posted by Artem Martynyuk on

Today, the law requires us to wear a seat belt while driving, and for a good reason. Seat belts are considered to be the most effective way to save lives in the instance of a vehicular accident. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Yes, the streets were less safe back then since seat belts weren’t around yet. But how did we come to have seat belts in every car? 

The Invention of the Seat Belt

The first-ever seat belt was invented in the later parts of the 19th century by Sir George Cayley. However, this seat belt wasn’t intended for the roads but rather for the skies. Yes, Sir Cayley, who was an English engineer and inventor, invented the seat belt to help keep pilots in their gliders. 

However, this wasn’t the only contribution Sir Cayley made in the field of aeronautics. In his life, Sir George Cayley had made many innovations in aeronautical engineering and is even considered the “father of aviation.”

Although Sir Cayley is often credited as the inventor of the seat belt, Edward J. Claghorn was the first to register a patent for something resembling a vehicular seat belt. However, this registered patent is often contested by historians due to the purpose of his invention. While some accounts say it was to keep tourists in New York taxis safe, others believed it had nothing to do with automobiles. 

In the patent, the belts were “designed to be applied to the person, and provided with hooks and other attachments for securing the person to a fixed object.” It goes on to mention other applications, such as keeping the hands free while working at an elevation. But there was no specific mention of use in automobiles.

Seat Belts in Racing

It was only in the 1930s that automobiles actually had two-point lap belts installed. However, they weren’t really popular at the time. Still, some physicians who tested the lap belts tried to urge manufacturers to add seat belts to their cars after seeing their impact. 

Eventually, the knowledge that seat belts increased safety gained traction. And in 1954, seat belts found their way into the racing industry. The Sports Car Club of America made it a requirement for competing drivers to wear lap belts in competitions. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) even appointed a Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee in the following year.

The Three-Point Seat Belt

At this point, the seat belts didn’t really look like the ones we’re familiar with today. They were only two-point belts that ran across the driver’s lap. But in 1958, this would all change with the invention of the three-point seat belt. 

This innovation in road safety is all thanks to a Swedish engineer named Nils Bohlin. Volvo had hired Bohlin to design the three-point seat belts we know today. This design improved the safety of the driver and passengers by securing both the upper and lower body. Due to the design’s simplicity and effectiveness, many other leading car manufacturers followed suit and borrowed the design. At the time of Bohlin’s death in 2002, Volvo estimated that he had saved more than a million lives with his invention. 

Final Thoughts

Thanks to the innovative minds of inventors such as Sir Cayley and Bohlin, the world has become a safer place. Today, seat belts are found in every car to prevent injury and death during road accidents. They save thousands of lives each year and continue to do so.

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