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How Volvo Inventor Nils Bohlin Made Cars Safer For Everyone

Culture | July 24, 2019

The three-point seat belt in action. Source: Volvo

Safe, not sexy -- that's been the Volvo way. The Swedish car manufacturer can claim a life-saving invention in the three-point seat belt, developed by a Volvo engineer in the '50s and patented. That's right, Volvo actually owns the patent on the seat belt that is standard on every car made today. But the company and the belt's inventor, Nils Bohlin, decided the technology was too important, and gave it away for the rest of the auto industry to use.

Cars have come a long way since their invention in 1886. Back then, they resembled little more than a barber’s chair propped up on four giant bicycle wheels. Today, they are closer to little spaceships than Karl Benz’s original invention. Since then, cars became faster, safer, and a few even learned to drive themselves. However, the most significant leap in automobile safety has changed very little over the past 60 years: the seat belt. The seat belt has saved more lives than yoga, vegetables, and crystals combined. But if not for the altruistic people at Volvo, we all might be living in a much different world.

The Original Seat Belt

Left: Inventor Nils Bohlen with his seat belt. Right: The seat belt as standard equipment on a Volvo. Source: Volvo

A note for younger readers: the original seat belt offered little more than a strap by which you could strangle your internal organs in the event of an accident. The single strap over the hip area did little to improve safety. The only people who used the original seat belt were race car drivers and regrettably, they found them rather worthless. After Volvo CEO Gunnar Engelau lost a relative in a car accident, he set his engineers to design a seat belt that could actually save lives. 

Volvo To The Rescue

Driving was even more dangerous prior to the three-point seatbelt (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

So, in the late ‘50s, the bright minds at Volvo went to work designing a seat belt with everyday drivers in mind. After a year of tinkering, in 1959, Nils Bohlin introduced the seat belt we know and love today. As Bohlin put it, “It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conveniently with one hand.” Volvo then patented the three-point seat belt, offering the company a huge advantage over the competition. Amazingly, Volvo took that massive safety advantage and gave it away. 

A Guiding Principle Of Safety

Volvo rightfully sells safety (arstechnica.com)

Most companies would immediately capitalize on cornering such a massive edge on their competitors. Volvo easily could have hoarded their patent and been the only company selling cars with effective seat belts. They would have made boatloads of money and many more people would have likely died. Or, we would all have driven Volvos, hard to say.

Either way, that’s not what happened. Instead, Volvo released their three-point seat belt patent, enabling all car manufacturers to install life-saving three-point seat belts. Volvo’s managing director believed, "The decision to release the three-point seat belt patent was visionary and in line with Volvo's guiding principle of safety."

Millions Of Lives Saved

Even the Air Force takes seat belt safety seriously (afspc.af.mil)

Totaling all the lives saved due to Volvo’s seat belt is impossible. However, Volvo estimates that worldwide, the three-point seat belt saved over a million lives since its invention. Victoria, Australia was the first city in the world to require seat belts by law in 1970. Traffic deaths fell by 18% the first year the law came to pass. 

Click It Or Ticket

The catchy 'Click It Or Ticket' is still kicking (theapopkavoice)

You’ve likely heard “Click it or ticket” before in your life. However, did you know the phrase started in 1993 in North Carolina? The clever campaign dramatically increased seat belt usage from 65 percent to 81 percent. Ten years later the campaign went national and slowly we all started wearing seat belts. States with primary seat belt enforcement laws (you can get pulled over for not wearing your seat belt) report usage at 91%. States with secondary seat belt enforcement (you must be pulled over for a separate infraction) at 79%.

Nils Bohlin posthumously earned an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. For years he received letters in the mail, thanking him for his invention. His stepson said the letters “warmed his heart very much, he buckled up absolutely every time he got into a car.” Apparently, Bohlin’s favorite phrase was ''Don't forget to buckle up.''

Tags: 1950s Cars | Inventions | Volvo

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!