National Geographic : 2009 Sep
PHOTOS: IRA BLOCK TOP ; REBECCA HALE, NG STAFF HISTORY Saved By the Belt Few inventors can claim credit for saving more than a million lives, but Nils Bohlin is one of them. Fifty years ago the Volvo engineer modified an airplane device and came up with the three-point seat belt---one strap across the hips, one across the chest, both anchored to the same point on the car floor. It was a milestone advance in auto safety, especially in the car-crazy U.S., where it was rolled out in 1963. Yet manufacturers of the time worried that it would remind consumers that cars could be unsafe. Misled motorists saw it as a danger, a nuisance, or both. That attitude persisted for decades: In 1981 only 11 percent of American drivers were buckling up. Now, however, thanks to state seat belt laws, the national "Click It or Ticket" campaign, and automated in-car reminders, U.S. usage is at 80 percent. Engineers, meanwhile, are developing and refining sci-fi safety technologies like collision-avoidance and drowsiness- monitoring systems. Experts say these ideas have promise, but Bohlin's simple seat belt is a proven lifesaver. ---Winona Dimeo-Ediger MILESTONES IN U.S. CAR SAFETY 1899 Henry H. Bliss is the first pedestrian killed in a traffic accident whenheishitbya New York City taxi. 1901 Oldsmobile debuts the speedometer; Connecticut puts limits on auto speed (12 mph in cities, 15 mph outside them). 1920 Detroit installs a three-color stoplight. 1937 Chrysler unveils a safer dashboard and padded seat backs. 1949 A Nash model features lap belts. 1952 A "safety cushion," the precursor to the modern air bag, is first conceived. 1963 Some Volvos include three-point belts in their front seats. 1966 Crash-test dummies are modified for car- safety tests (in time replacing cadavers, chimps, and hogs). 1968 Federal law requires all passenger cars to carry seat belts. 1974 An "inconvenienced" public persuades Congress to repeal a law ensuring cars can't start until seat belts are buckled. 1984 New York is the first state to require the use of seat belts. 1995 All states but New Hampshire have broad seat belt laws. 1998 All autos must have dual front air bags. 2008 Automakers trot out alarm systems that rouse sleepy drivers. 2020 Volvo envisions an "injury-proof" car. A 1959 Volvo in Sweden was the first car to feature a three-point seat belt.