The 50-year-old Innovation
One might assume that for something to be truly innovative, it must use a heavy dose of integrated circuits, advanced materials and computer control. For instance, all three of these items play a vital role in the functioning of ABS, Yaw Control and Heads Up Display technology. In all honesty, it's tough to imagine anything being truly innovative without using the latest and greatest high-tech gadgetry.
Yet one of the most important and innovative devices in the history of the automobile uses none of these components. It was invented almost 50 years ago and continues to play the single most crucial role in protecting human life as it relates to the modern automobile. This device, as some of you may have already guessed, is the three-point safety belt, first invented by Nils Bohlin and patented by Volvo in 1959.
Back in 1959, the concept of using a fabric belt system to hold vehicle occupants in place during an accident was viewed with skepticism by both the automobile industry and the general public. Anyone who has seen the 1988 movie "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" may recall how unwilling Detroit automakers were to expend time and money on the development of safety provisions during the post-War era. It was in this environment that Volvo first introduced the three-point safety belt. Initially the belts were provided only in Volvo's home market cars, but by 1963 all Volvos, including those destined for the U.S., came equipped with front passenger, three-point belts.
Volvo followed up the three-point belt introduction with massive data acquisition on vehicle accidents involving cars equipped with the safety device. In 1966 the company released the "28,000 accident report" which proved that the three-point belt had already saved thousands of lives. With the "28,000 accident report" as a basis for lobbying efforts, legislation regulating the need for safety belts in American automobiles was passed in 1968.
While laws requiring the addition of safety belts in vehicle production first appeared in the 1960s, it is only during the last 20 years that laws requiring the use of seatbelts have been established in the U.S.; and even these laws are on a state-by-state, rather than federal, level. It is estimated that worldwide, on average, one person dies in a car accident every second. Despite these figures, current seatbelt use in the U.S. is between 80 and 85 percent, with Europe scoring only slightly lower at around 79 percent.
Whether utilized or not, the three-point belt has withstood the test of time, which is the true measurement of success for any innovation. In its 50-year history, the changes made to Mr. Bohlin's original design have been few and far between. In 1968 the inertia reel was introduced on Volvo cars that allowed greater comfort and freedom of movement when wearing the belt while eliminating the need to readjust the belt's size for different users. Subsequent improvements included tensioners to eliminate slack when the belt is tightened; force limiters to control the forces needed to restrain the user; and simpler, more effective buckles.
There have been a few dead-ends in the evolution of seatbelts, as well. Remember those early 90s models that tried to strangle you every time you got in or out of the car? The shoulder belt would roll along the roofline in a not-so-subtle manner while the strap tightened around your upper body, giving claustrophobic passengers a lesson in sheer terror. Automakers have since decided to let individuals buckle-up all by themselves.
Future improvements to seatbelt design should come in the way of more comfortable straps, more effective force limiters and, eventually, the use of computers and microprocessors to control the function of a belt before, during and after a collision sequence. Yes, it seems that the latest high-tech gadgetry will ultimately find its way into the simple functioning of seatbelts, too.
Regardless of the three-point safety belt's future, Volvo gets credit for pioneering its past development and current use in today's automobiles. The company was the first to include it as standard equipment and the first to study its effectiveness in injury prevention during accidents. And, as a result, they are happy to point out that "There is a little bit of Volvo in every car."