A Brief History of the Seatbelt

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The first modern use of the seatbelt is credited to Sir George Carley, a British citizen who used a self-made harness while out on his glider in the early 1800’s. It was not until 1885 that the safety belt was brought to the U.S. market by Edward Claghorn. This version was used mainly to secure firefighters and construction workers to a fixed object.

Although seatbelts were commonplace on airplanes by the 1930’s, the retractable seatbelts that are in our cars today did not come until the late 1950’s. Cars were first introduced to the U.S. in the 1890’s, so the country went an entire 60 years without seatbelts in cars.

Oddly enough, it was a medical doctor and not a car manufacturer who was responsible for the widespread use of seatbelts in motor vehicles. After seeing hundreds of patients suffering head trauma from auto accidents, C. Hunter Shelden decided to take a look at how we could prevent or reduce injuries in these situations. After researching the current safety features found in automobiles, he published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This article recommended many of the safety features that we are familiar with today, such as the retractable seatbelt, a reinforced roof, and roll bars. Shortly after, Volvo introduced the first three-point seatbelt into their motor vehicles in 1959.

By 1966, the country had seen deaths on the road increase by 600% in just 40 years of motor vehicle use. With the help of Sheldon’s safety recommendations, Congress was able to pass the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This was the country’s first law that provided a way to enforce safety standards on vehicle manufacturers.

After the act was passed, seatbelts became a standard safety feature that all drivers were familiar with. Interestingly, it was not until 1983 that wearing a seatbelt was required for drivers. Drivers and front-sitting passengers were required to wear seat belts starting in this year. In 1991, wearing a seatbelt became compulsory for all passengers in a vehicle.

Over the years, the seatbelt has been adapted to fit almost every mode of transportation. The standard car seatbelt is a three-point harness, but there are also five-point harnesses for children who need to be more carefully secured. Most NASCAR drivers wear a six-point harness while racing around the track since they reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The most sophisticated belts are saved for aerobatic aircraft pilots. Since these pilots often do maneuvers that could lift them out the seat, they need to be strapped down tight. They use a five-point body harness in combination with a lap belt for a seven-point belt system.

The seatbelt has saved lives and prevented injury since the first days of its introduction. With the ubiquity of cars in modern culture, seatbelts are truly an invaluable safety measure for our population. We can thank Carley, Shelden, and our friends in Washington for paving the way toward a safer future.


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