The safety pioneer's invention celebrates half a century and over a million lives saved
The story begins in 1958 when Nils Bohlin, a renowned aviation specialist working for SAAB's aerospace safety department, was recruited to Volvo by then president Gunnar Engellau and appointed as the company's first safety engineer. Gunnar Engellau had realized the benefits of developing a profile of the company and it was obvious to emphasize safety, which by then had already become a significant part of Volvo's image.
In 1952, a three-point belt had been designed and a patent was pending in the US but it was designed for aircraft. In this design, the diagonal belt was anchored behind the seat, almost directly behind the passenger. The diagonal belt and the lap belt met at the buckle that was positioned on the abdomen, with its anchoring points positioned such that the occupant could move in an impact, whereupon this unfortunately positioned buckle injured the body's softer organs instead of protecting them.
"I realized that both the upper torso and the lower part of the body had to held securely in place, with one belt across the chest and another across the hips. It also needed a non-moving attachment point for the buckle, placed far down beside the occupant's hip so that the belt is pulled taut across the body throughout the collision sequence. It was a matter of finding a solution that was both simple and efficient in use since it had to be able to be put on with one hand," explained Nils Bohlin at the time.
In 1958 Volvo's efforts in creating an effective safety solution resulted in a patent application for Nils Bohlin's three-point safety belt. His design had four important properties: 1) The system consisted of a lap belt and a diagonal belt, 2) the belts were anchored at a low attachment point beside the seat, 3) the belt geometry formed a V shape with the point directed toward the floor and 4) the belt stayed in position and did not move in an impact.
In 1959, the by now patented three-point belt was launched in the Volvo Amazon (120) and PV 544 on the Nordic markets. Volvo was thus the very first car maker in the world to equip its cars as standard with three-point safety belts. A major step forward in safety had now been taken.
The manufacturer was so convinced of its safety potential that it made the patent available for other manufacturers, and motorists to benefit from. Volvo was also the first manufacturer to fit three-point safety belts as standard equipment in its cars, from 1963.
The basic design endures to 2009, with modern technological developments such as seat belt pre-tensioners, remaining the single most important safety feature on all modern cars.
Now required by law in modern cars for most countries, it continues to protect hundreds of thousands of people from death or serious injury in car accidents every year.