Seatbelts in cars have saved millions lives, and high-speed freeways and laws make them absolutely necessary. But although the concept is over 100 years old, belts weren't all that common in cars until the mid-20th century. They were first used in trains, and then in airplanes. Automobiles were slow to catch on. Nils Bohlin, an engineer for Volvo, knew there were problems with the old-fashioned two-point seatbelt. He came up with the design for the three-point seatbelt that secures the chest with a diagonal strap. Bohlin filed a patent for the design in 1958. It was clearly a vast improvement in safety, but that didn't mean auto companies were in any hurry to adopt it.
For years, the automobile industry’s own handling of seat belts left a lot to be desired. Seat belts, 1949-1956, a 1979 report created at the behest of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, highlighted the fact that making car safety a matter of consumer choice led to wildly different results among manufacturers.
In 1955, Ford tried to emphasize safety options in its vehicles, including the offering of seat belts, which was a novel option for vehicles at the time. The marketing campaign was spearheaded by Robert McNamara, a Ford executive who just a few years later saw his profile increase significantly as the U.S. Defense Secretary. But while Ford’s efforts at safety were legitimate and drove interest in the vehicles, the company was competing against General Motors, which made no effort to emphasize safety in its own vehicles at the time—instead focusing on more traditional concerns among car manufacturers, such as speed. In a marketing war, speed won out.
Volvo and Bohlin could have reaped immeasurable rewards by enforcing their patent rights as federal safety standards were enacted in the auto industry, but how long would that take, how many lives would be lost, and what if another design became standard instead? What if they just gave away the rights to the three-point seatbelt? Ernie Smith has the story of the seatbelt at Tedium. -via Digg