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Volvo celebrates the seatbelt’s golden anniversary

Wed, 12 Aug 2009

By Freddie Fulton

Motor Industry

12 August 2009 10:11

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the three-point seatbelt. It was patented by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin in 1959, but the Swedes magnanimously opened up the tech to other car makers as they saw the real-world safety benefit of seatbelts in all cars.

The design was so effective that in Germany the patent registrars listed it in the top eight inventions which have made an impact from 1885 to 1985.

‘Both the upper torso and the lower part of the body had to held securely in place,’ noted Bohlin. Seatbelts had to be ‘simple and efficient’ as most people buckle up with only one hand.

The three-pointed belt idea, using a lap and torso belt, had been trialled in the USA but with little success – it tended to damage the soft organs during emergencies. Bohlin’s design was far improved, with the diagonal strap across the chest rather than the stomach. In 1969, the ‘inertia-reel mechanism’ was introduced, which made the safety belt even more effective.

Amazingly, before Bohlin came to work for Volvo, his job was to find a way to throw people from vehicles by designing an ejector seat for pilots!

The idea of rally-style four- or five-point harnesses has been discussed for a while. Although this system is safer when the car rolls (among other advantages) there are some disadvantages. They’re way more fiddly to strap up and more expensive, to boot.

But there will be innovation. Illuminated strips could be sewn in to the belt to make them easier to find by night. And why can’t the buckle rise out of the seat when sat upon? Some manufacturers are developing inflatable belts, which would incorporate mini airbags to spread accident forces.

By Freddie Fulton