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

By | February 27, 2019

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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

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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.