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Member Article: Buckled to the History of the Seatbelt

Words by Nick Bassett.

It’s almost 50 years since an Australian state made history via the compulsory use of seatbelts.

Volvo and Victoria dominated seatbelt history. The first car to be equipped with three-point seatbelts in the front was a Volvo P544 delivered to a dealer in Kristianstad, Sweden on August 13, 1959. And a little more than 11 years later, Victoria became the world’s first legislature to decree mandatory wearing of seatbelts.

It was November 17, 1970, that the then Chief Secretary of the Victorian State Government, Sir Arthur Rylah, made the announcement. The legislation came into effect on December 22 of the same year, just in time for the Christmas peak traffic period.

The effect on road trauma was so great – the death toll was down by almost 10 per cent in the first year – that all other Australian states followed and by January 1, 1972 the wearing of belts was compulsory throughout Australia. Other countries also introduced similar laws.

As early as the 1930s there were calls for manufacturers to provide seatbelts in new vehicles. Belts had only just begun to be used in aeroplanes, doubtless catalysed by the desire of bolder pilots to be able to fly upside down.

But the laws of physics did not need to be tested so hard to make the advantages self-evident the first seatbelt patent was granted in 1885 to one Edward J Claghorn. A number of prominent US physicians equipped their own cars with lap belts to lead by example.

In 1954 the Sports Car Club of America required racing drivers to wear two-point belts. Volvo offered an optional two-point cross-chest diagonal belt in 1956. In 1958 Saab became the first manufacturer to offer lap belts as standard in its cars, introducing them in the 750 GT.

Front seatbelts were mandatory in all cars sold in Australia after January 1, 1969. Belts had been manufactured in Australia since the late 1950s and by 1963-64 the annual volume was more than 300,000, increasing to a million over the next half decade.

From June 30, 1964 South Australian legislation decreed the fitting of mounting points to all outboard positions. Victoria echoed this move on October 1 of the same year. But although motorists accepted the safety benefit, there was no great move towards fitting seatbelts, even though mounting points, at least for the outboard front seats, were fitted to almost all new cars displayed at the 1966 Melbourne Motor Show (where seatbelts were universally available as optional extras).

Work began on three-point belts in 1951 but it took eight years to arrive at production reality. 

Volvo’s Nils Bohlin developed the single most important safety breakthrough in automotive history. The company has remained at or near the forefront of seatbelt technology ever since.

Volvo made lap-sash belts standard on its domestic market in 1959. In 1963, lap-sash front belts were fitted to all Volvos sold in the USA. Volvo began installing rear lap belts in 1967, moving to the lap-sash type five years later. It had a centre inertia-reel belt in the rear of its cars by 1986.

The first US manufacturer to offer lap belts as an option was Nash in 1949. Ford followed in 1955, but, in a pessimistic burst of illogicality, American buyers took this as an admission that the design of the vehicles themselves was unsafe… After all, other manufacturers mostly did not offer the belts.

The take-up rate was low and Ford’s experience led to the introduction of the long-held adage (only outdated in the past 20 years) that ‘safety does not sell’.

Ralph Nader’s landmark 1965 book Unsafe at any Speed the designed-in dangers of the American Automobile was a major contributor to the rush into seatbelts in the second half of the 1960s. But even before his book hit the shelves, Nader’s views were well known and he was engaged in highly public battles with the Detroit carmakers, chiefly General Motors. That same year (1965) all US manufacturers started equipping cars with belts front and rear in advance of legislation.

Richard Gerstenberg, Chairman of General Motors, happened to be at Fishermans Bend visiting Holden in 1965 when a telephone call came through from the US detailing some development in the Nader controversy. This triggered the decision to fit belts as standard.

Holden managed to get lap-sash front belts into the HR in September 1966, six months after the model’s launch.

To demonstrate the strength of these belts, the public relations people managed to suspend an HR Holden from one seat belt with a smaller Viva suspended by a second seat belt beneath the HR.

John Bremner, a public relations man on the scene, laughed about this later but probably didn’t on the day. Apparently the crane driver was a little jerky in his manoeuvres putting a sudden strain on his load. The top-belt steel anchor plate split and the HR Holden dropped onto the Viva, flattening it and changing the focus of the media’s attention.

By 1975 inertia-reel belts were fitted to the outboard front seats of all new cars sold in Australia and some years later these also found their way into the rear. The advantage of this style of belt over the manually adjustable variety is manifest but a 2007 study conducted by the Ford Motor Company showed that a standard inertia reel seatbelt does not prevent the wearer’s head from making contact with the roof in a standard rollover test.

Thus the next big step forward was the pretensioner or web-clamp. Daimler-Benz was the pioneer, introducing them on its 1981 S-Class.

In the event of an impact the pretensioner tightens the belt almost instantly. The web-clamp limits the distance the belt can spool out and usually incorporates ‘rip stitching’ which gives way at a predetermined point to soften the encounter between belt and the occupant.

These ‘automatic’ elements added great value to the three-point lap-sash seatbelt. The original manually adjustable type was rarely worn properly. Nevertheless, it is well known that more than three points is ideal, which is why racing drivers use five, six or even seven-point belts, which must be painstakingly adjusted.

Thus far no inertia reel component can be incorporated into these multi-point set-ups. The use of such belts in road cars remains infeasible.

One of the key advantages of the three-point belt is that it can be fastened and unfastened with one hand. Consumers only ever expect things to get easier. If this ease of operation could be applied to a four or five-point system, then that would be a logical next step.

Expect breakthroughs in the near future. Volvo has already set itself the seemingly unrealistic goal that no person will be killed or seriously injured in one of its cars in 2020.

When it introduced the three-point belt, the Swedish company shared the patent with all the world’s car manufacturers. Currently the company is engaged in experiments with a four-point arrangement and also with a motorised belt that can re-position the driver into the least dangerous position when an imminent impact is detected.

While in recent years much more attention has been paid to airbag technology, there is still room for further developments in the simple seatbelt.

It’s likely Volvo, if not Australia will lead the way again…

Motafrenz Webmaster

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