From Scorn to Worn: The curious history of seat belts

  • Published
  • By Jerry Clineman
  • Air Education and Training Command Occupational Safety Office
According to the Traffic Safety Center at the University of California Berkeley, seat belts are “the single most effective motor vehicle occupant safety device yet developed for older children and adults.” Seat belts have existed in some form since the early days of automobiles, but they’ve changed dramatically over time from a single lap belt to the diagonal three-point system we use today. Along with the development of the seat belt came important legislation to ensure drivers and passengers buckled up.

In olden days, horse and cart drivers tried to figure how to keep passengers (and themselves, of course) from being thrown off and trampled by their horses. Most often they used ropes or leather straps to connect person and cart. Does anybody remember the Beverley Hillbillies using a piece of rope for a seat belt?

It was in 1885 that a New York City man named Edward J. Claghorn devised the first U.S.-patented vehicular seat belt. Looking much like a present-day climber’s harness, it was designed to secure the passenger to a fixed object. As cars began appearing in America during the early 1900s, some drivers and passengers also used crude forms of seat belts, not as safety measures, but to keep themselves from falling out as they traversed bumpy terrain.

Due to the largely unpopular view of seat belt use, it was not until 1953 that the Colorado State Medical Society supported installing lap belts in all vehicles. In 1954, the Sports Car Club of America (precursor to NASCAR) required all competing racers to wear lap belts. A year later the Society of Automotive Engineers appointed their first Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee. It was in 1955, as well, that California became the first state to require all new cars to come equipped with lap belts. While the seat belts were an option, it was estimated that only about 1 percent of American drivers used them. Dealers certainly didn’t push them, and while safety experts claimed it would only cost 50 cents to install mounts so drivers could add the belts themselves, manufacturers just weren’t interested. It wasn’t until 1959 in which Congress passed a law requiring all cars comply with certain standards of safety.

By 1965 all states had laws requiring seat belts be installed. Lap belts were still the belts of choice; despite medical evidence that in accident conditions lap belts had the potential to cause separation of the lumbar vertebrae.

When President Johnson suggested it was time for federal regulations to control car safety performance, Congress unanimously passed The Highway Safety Act and The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, creating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The federal government had been given authority to regulate car and highway standards, including a demand that the Department of Transportation move quickly to force car manufacturers to install seat belts in new cars. A year later backseat belts were added and, for the 1974 model year, three-point, continuous-loop seat belts were required.

Even with the increased federal regulation, seat belt usage was calculated at less than 15 percent of the driving public. A campaign was started in the 1960’s to push for mandatory seat belt use. It was not until 1995 that every state, except New Hampshire, had mandatory seat belt-use laws.

Currently, about 88 percent of Americans wear seat belts, and manufacturers tout their automotive safety features to prospective customers. If a car accident results in a lawsuit, one of the questions asked of the plaintiff is whether or not they were wearing a seat belt. If not, they may be found to have contributed in some degree to the sustained injuries. When liability adjusters make their offers of settlement, they may also reduce the offer if the driver was not wearing a seat belt. There are also ongoing experiments to improve the seat belts we use.

The seat belt saga continues as the exploration of new materials, systems and technology continue to be reached. Regardless of what actions we take, we know beyond any doubt that seat belts save lives. They double our chance of surviving a crash and vastly improve our chance of walking away without serious injury. Their history to date has been a checkered one balancing responsibilities among manufacturers, drivers and government officials. The bottom line whether you click it, latch it or snap it; it took all of these players working together to make your safety even more important than the latest styling changes.

(References: Road Safety Information, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center)