If any vehicle today is missing a seatbelt, everyone will notice. It may even violate the law. In fact, “As of November 1st, 2020, New York state law dictates that every vehicle passenger, regardless of age, must wear a seatbelt or be properly restrained in a car seat or booster seat,” says New York car accident lawyer Andrew Finkelstein.
While we often take these safety restraints for granted, the seatbelt was not always a standard safety feature for every vehicle. Even after the initial invention of the seatbelt, it evolved over time from just a single strap across the lap that used security hooks to the three-point belt that we have nowadays.
Even if it may appear that seatbelts and the laws that made them mandatory have been existing as long as cars themselves, the invention of the first seatbelt did not happen until the 19th century. On the other hand, we know that Leonardo Da Vinci was creating models and designs for transport vehicles as far back as the 15th century.
The invention of the seat belt is usually credited to George Cayley, who was an engineer of English origin. In the latter part of the 1800s, Cayley came up with these belts for the purpose of keeping pilots secure when they were flying their gliders.
The first seat belt patent, however, was filed by Edward J. Claghorn in 1885. Claghorn was an American and came up with this invention for ensuring the safety of tourists in New York City taxis. He was able to patent the first safety belt which became US Patent 312,085, on the 10th of February 1885. The simple belt started out as a mere strap on the driver or passenger’s lap. The belt also utilized other attachments as well as hooks to make sure that people are secured to a fixed object. This patent allowed the birth of the seatbelt and helped to make sure that people riding in cars were at least stable when on the road.
Even when seat belts first started showing up inside the design of personal cars, their intended purposes was more about helping the rider (driver or passenger) stable in their seats. The introduction of the car seat belt as a safety feature came to light much later on.
The role of seat belts for safety purposes became apparent in the mid-1930s, when US physicians started testing the lap belts and seeing their benefits. They ordered automobile manufacturers to include these belts in all their cars. However, the first group to don seat belts for preventing injuries was racecar drivers. In the year 1954, the Sports Car Club of America stated requiring their drivers to wear belts while competing.
What Was the Origin of the Modern Seatbelt?
Modernized seatbelts started appearing after 75 years in the year 1959 when an engineer at Volvo named Nils Bohlin was able to invent the seatbelt with three-points. Volvo then encouraged people to utilize seatbelts and became the first manufacturer that was able to offer the standard seatbelt in all of their cars. This Swedish automobile-maker actually sacrificed billions of dollars because they didn’t patent this technology so that other automobile manufacturers could easily use it. This allowed Volvo to become established as a powerhouse of safety as it is known nowadays. They were also able to help in increasing automobiles’ safety in general.
Making the Seatbelt Mandatory
As the consumers became more and more aware of the seatbelts and their importance, it was still a safety feature that remained optional in a lot of American vehicles. The Congress of the United States eventually recognized the increase in the number of deaths from car accidents that might have been prevented with the use of seatbelts. Hence, this organization eventually passed the safety belts’ new law in federal standards in 1963 to make sure that the injuries of passengers in any motor vehicle accident will stay minimal.
After having these standards set for a year, the Commerce Department of the United States then adopted some regulations in the adoption, testing, and usage of seatbelts. A lot of these were what the SAE or Society of Automotive Engineers had issued before.
Since the initial federal standards for seatbelts were passed, the laws about the safety restraints eventually evolved into the seatbelt laws that people know nowadays. Even if these laws may have some changes that depend on the US state you are in at the moment, the initial mandatory law that required occupants of any vehicle to wear a seatbelt became effective in New York on the 1st of December 1984. From then on, all of the states were able to pass their own law that required the utilization of seat belts. South Dakota and Maine were the last states that managed to accomplish this in the year 1995.
Today, seat belts are more or less mandatory in most places within the United States and most other first-world countries. Developing countries are also catching on to this safety feature, mandating tickets and fines for those who omit to wear their seat belts. Even ridesharing services such as Uber have seat belt wearing requirements for both their drivers and passengers.
The Future of the Seat Belt
The seat belt might be a permanent fixture in most modern cars, but it’s far from perfect. Many drivers complain that wearing a seat belt cramps their driving style and actually makes driving more dangerous for them. There are also some scary tales about seat belts choking their wearers during an accident or not opening in emergency situations. This is why there’s still a lot of research going on about how to improve seatbelts and their function.
The company Ford, for instance, debuted an inflatable safety belt back in 2001. This was a shoulder belt that came with its own inbuilt airbag. The idea was that the airbag would inflate in case of a collision, thus cushioning the wearer and saving them from a full impact. The history of the airbag is another interesting read.
Other car manufacturers are also working on more comfortable designs for the seat belt, especially when it comes to fitting a belt to different body shapes and sizes. Many seat belt ideas might still be in the pipeline, but it seems like we may look forward to a more comfortable yet safe driving experience very soon.
Despite the laws, standards, and experience, the use of the seat belt is still not as high as it needs to be. As per a recent study, one in three people in Europe do not wear seatbelts whenever they are at the rear. However, this safety feature has been able to save numerous lives so far. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a driver or passenger; sitting at the front or the rear, don’t forget to buckle up whenever you’re inside a car.