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How The Death Of James Dean Put Seat Belts In Our Cars

Culture | March 2, 2019

James Dean gives a thumbs-up sign from his Porsche 550 Spyder, the Little Bastard. Dean owned the car only nine days when he lost his life in a fatal highway accident while driving it. Credit: Bettmann/Getty

It was a short, eventful life for actor James Dean -- but a seat belt might have saved it. In the early morning hours of September 30, 1955, police, fire, and ambulances were dispatched to the scene of a horrific two-car accident at a desert intersection in Cholame, California. There, they found two injured people and one deceased in two badly mangled cars. First responders soon learned that the deceased driver of the Porsche Spyder convertible was rising superstar James Dean, who was a new Hollywood heartthrob after his recent role in East of Eden (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant were released just after his death). Dean was 24 at the time of his death.

The world was shocked and saddened by the sudden loss, but others pointed out that, had Dean been wearing a seat belt, he most likely would have survived the crash. James Dean’s death help to raise the public's awareness over seat belt use and ushered in the age of automotive safety. 

The Danger Of Car Crashes Was A Concern From The 1930s

James Dean's car after his accident. Source: (

The automobile boom of the 1920s and 1930s put more and more cars on the nation’s roadways, greatly increasing the chances of accidents. In the early part of the 1930s, at least two doctors, Claire Straith and CJ Strickland, expressed concern about the number of deaths from car accidents. They noted that most of the deaths were a result of the passengers being ejected from the vehicle or tossed into the windshield during impact. Both Straith and Strickland recommended a lap belt to help keep people from bouncing around in a crash, In fact, they had lap belts installed in their own vehicles, but they failed to convince automakers to add seatbelts to their cars. 

The 1950s Saw Attention To Automotive Safety

Nils Bohlin, shown here, designed the 3-point seatbelt. Source: (

It took until the 1950s before the public seemed willing to listen to ways to make automobile travel safer. Nash Motors was the first car manufacturer to offer seatbelts, but these were only available on some of their models. And they were optional. 

Dean's Death Changed Opinions

Carmakers began to tout the benefits of seatbelts. Source: (

The American public, still mourning the death of James Dean, took notice when accident investigators and coroner’s reports showed that Dean would have likely survived the car crash if he had been properly restrained. His Spyder was not equipped with seatbelts, but very few cars at that time were. Deaths from car accidents were on the rise throughout the fifties and, for the first time, the public was open to discussions about the lifesaving benefits of seatbelt use. 

Volvo Launches Its 'Safety First' Campaign

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Shortly after James Dean’s death in 1955, the Swedish car manufacturer, Volvo, launched their “safety first” campaign aimed at raising awareness about automobile safety. The car company had done their own extensive research into car safety. All of their crash test experiments showed, without a doubt, that seat belt use greatly reduced fatalities and severe injuries to people involved in car crashes. They released their findings and announced that all of their vehicles would come with seat belts as a standard feature. 

Other Carmakers Began Including Seatbelts

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Following Volvo’s lead, some American car manufactures, such as Ford and Chrysler, added seatbelts to their vehicles, but they were an optional feature, so many car buyers didn’t include it. The problem with seatbelt use, however, began to shift. It wasn’t that the cars were not equipped with seatbelts; it was that the public refused to use them. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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In 1965, seatbelts were, for the first time, legally required for front seat passengers, but this was on a state-by-state basis. By this time, most car companies had seatbelts as an optional feature but they balked at making them standard. In 1966, the government established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an organization that gathered data on car accidents, car crash injuries, and fatalities. They also led the push for a nation-wide seatbelt law, federal requirements for safety equipment in all cars, and for widespread use of seatbelts by the public. 

Public Service Announcements About Seatbelt Use

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As a way to increase seatbelt use the NHTSA launched a series of PSAs in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. These ads ranged from the graphic and horrific to the comical, but statistically, they failed at their mission to increase seatbelt use. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the early 1980s, only about 11% of the population regularly used seatbelts. 

Seatbelts Finally Caught On In The Eighties

The crash test dummies were an effective tool to show the benefits of seatbelt use. Source: (

The 1980s saw state after state adopting strict seatbelts laws, starting with New York in 1984. By 1995, every state except for New Hampshire had a seatbelt law in place. Violations of seatbelt laws resulted in citations, fines, and higher car insurance rates. The new laws and the punishments attached to them greatly increased seatbelt use. The threat of fines and higher costs, it seemed, was a more effective tool for change than PSAs and the threat of death or injury. The loss of life from car crashes was drastically lowered thanks to seatbelts. And it was the terrible car accident that claimed the life of James Dean that brought awareness of the benefits of seatbelts. 

Tags: 1950s Cars | A Brief History Of... | James Dean | Safety | Seat Belts

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.