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A Brief History of Seat Belts

Natalie Josef
November 15, 2010

Automatically, without a doubt, the first thing I do when I get in a car is put on my seat belt. I am sure most of us do. But it wasn’t always that way. The first time the world even heard about seat belts was for their use by stunt pilots who flew upside down. The jump from that to making them standard in automobiles seems unlikely at best.

So how did seat belts go from stunt planes to automobiles?

Around the turn of the century, cars started to be mass produced in the United States. By the 1930s, around 30,000 people were dying each year in automobile accidents and emergency rooms were seeing more and more head injuries. Alarmed, a group of doctors got together and started to make lap restraints for their personal vehicles. After testing the restraints, they urged car manufacturers to start making them standard on all vehicles.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that seat belt use really took off. In 1953, the Colorado State Medical Society published a report that supported the installation of lap belts in all vehicles. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) appointed a Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee in 1955, and in the same year, California became the first state to require all cars to come with lap belts. The following year, Chrysler and Ford began offering lap belts as an optional feature on some of their models. Volvo also started marketing a cross-chest diagonal, three-point safety belt around this time as well.

In the 1960s, the federal government began studies on seat belt use. By the middle of the decade, all fifty states had passed laws requiring seat belts for the front seats—two years later, in 1967, seat belts became mandatory for back seats as well.

Like I said, to me, it’s automatic, but you might be surprised at how many people still don’t buckle up. Where I am from, the South, it’s almost like Confederate rebellion not to wear a seat belt, like Yankees are the ones who are enforcing the law and you can’t be a real Southerner if you wear one. It’s also still very common for Hollywood movies and TV shows to show driving scenes where actors are not wearing their seat belts.

Since most cars will ding you to death with the seat belt warning alarm, I find it surprising that so many people are still so resistant to wearing seat belts. I mean, the facts don’t lie. Estimates suggest that about 50 percent of people who die in car crashes each year would have been saved if they had been wearing their seat belts. According to the Naval Safety Center, only 1 percent of people who are wearing seat belts are ejected from the vehicle during an accident. Of those who are ejected, nearly 73 percent are killed. I don’t like those odds.

So, why aren’t people wearing them? Why is it that when surveyed, 90 percent of people say that seat belts are a good idea, but less than 80 percent actually use them? Why are people willing to pay a fine for not wearing them? Some studies suggest that American’s bigger waistlines are a factor, but I think there is also a bit of a rebel in all of us. There is almost a criminal feeling you get when you don’t wear a seat belt, like you are an outlaw from the Wild West. Maybe, to some, not wearing our seat belts is freedom of expression—and a way to tell the government to take a hike.

Luckily, I don’t need to get my jollies this way. Sure, you can argue the downsides of seat belts, and airbags for that matter, but I would rather err on the safe side.

Wow, when did I get so old?

 

Natalie Josef

About the Author

Natalie Josef is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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