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History of Seat Belts: Effective for Men and Women?

history of seat belts

The primary reason why it is safer to drive today than in 1960 is because of seat belts. It is true. Seat belts use doubles the survival rate in a crash. Seat belts reduced the number of lives lost each year in a car accident, potentially saving more than a million lives since 1959.

Yet, the impact of seat belts did not happen overnight. Effective methods to test seat belts and other safety features took even longer and continue being updated.

history of seat belts

History of Seat Belts

Today, most people get into cars and buckle up without a second thought. Yet, this was not always the case the United States and in countries around the world.

Originally the idea of a seat belt came in the 1800s from an English engineer named George Cayley trying to keep pilots safe inside their gliders. Fast forward to cars. People started installing their own seat belts as early as the first cars to reduce the bouncing. In the 1930s, physicians in the US equipped their cars with lap belts and urged auto manufactures to provide them in all new cars.

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1950 saw the first factory installed seat belts in the Nash Statesman and Ambassador models. Retractable seat belts in automobiles were first introduced in the early 1950s by a neurologist, Dr. C. Hunter Shelden, as a way to prevent people suffering from auto accident-related head trauma. Volvo design engineer, Nils Bohlin, patented the first 3-point safety belt in 1958 but shared the design with their competitors in an effort to increase safety for all.

There were no regulations for seat belt performance in the U.S. until after National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 created what is now the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA). The first seat belt law—federal law Title 49 of the United States Code, Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety Standard—took effect in 1968. The law required manufacturers to fit seat belts into vehicles.

Yet, the use of seat belts didn’t become mandatory until each state in the U.S. established their own seat belt laws. In 1984 New York became the first state to mandate that drivers use a seat belt. Over the next eleven years 48 other states instituted seat belt use laws. New Hampshire remains the only U.S. state without a seat belt use law for drivers.

What Difference Have Seat Belts Made?

Great Britain, like the U.S., introduced a national seat belt law that enforced the use of seat belts in 1983. 2,443 people died in car crashes in Britain in 1982. This is a far cry from the number of people who died in car crashes in 2016 (816). In the United States, the car crash fatality rate (per capita) is almost half of what it was in 1976.

Today the population of the U.S. is over 320 million whereas it was 215 million in 1976. There are more drivers on the road today. This would make you think that there would be a higher total number of fatal car crashes in the U.S. today. This is not the case because of seat belts. Seat belts, along with auto safety features and testing, are the primary reasons that driving is safer today than it was 40 years ago.

The Function of a Seat Belt

When a person gets in a car crash, the car comes to a sudden stop. A body wants to continue to move forward because it is traveling at the same speed the car formerly was. A seat belt—and secondarily the air bag—stops that person’s forward momentum. The seat belt reduces the force your body takes on by spreading the crash energy to strong bony parts of the body, allowing you to “ride down” the crash.

A seat belt features strong retractor mechanisms, pretensioners and straps to cinch down on the stronger parts of the body, like the shoulders and hip bones. This reduces the range of motion that a person can have while they are in the vehicle seats. During a crash, the seat belt keeps the body in the seat, allowing time for the body to come to a halt.

Manufacturers build modern cars with seat belt safety reminder alerts for the front occupants to put on their seat belt.

Regardless of your sex, driving without wearing a seat belt is dangerous.

history of seat belts fit women

Do they Fit Women?

We have to consider whether seat belts effectively keep both men and women safe. The reality is seat-belted females are:

For drivers and passengers with smaller statures in a vehicle accident, there is a higher possibility of head, abdominal, pelvic, and leg injuries. Additionally, drivers who are shorter have a higher chance of suffering from chest injuries.

Women also tend to have necks that are less muscular than the necks of their male counterparts. This makes women more vulnerable to suffer from whiplash. And one study in Sweden found women are more prone to whiplash because vehicle seats don’t give way to their lighter bodies.

Also having to move the driver’s seat forward for shorter women to reach the pedals puts women out of proper position compared to manufacturer-recommended seating position. Thus adding greater risk of injury.

Download our free PDF guide: Safer Driving During Pregnancy

Unisex Crash Testing: Is it Changing?

When safety regulations were originally imposed on auto manufacturers in the late 1960s, regulators wanted to require the use of two crash test dummies. One being a 95 percentile male and one a 5 percentile female, meaning only 5% of men were larger than and 5% of women were smaller than the crash test dummies. Manufacturers pushed back and regulators reduced the requirement to a single crash test dummy, a 50 percentile male (the average man).

Historically, manufacturers tested seat belts and frontal air bags to be sure they were safe for men, not women. In the early years more men drove—and more men died in car crashes—according to the NHTSA. Fifty years ago, men accounted for 76% of the average annual miles driven.

More recently things have changed. Compared to 1963 in 2010 women drove 89% more miles. (Comparatively, men drive 33% more miles.) Male drivers make up less than 50% of drivers on the road but they drive more miles per year.

Fortunately, engineers now have the ability to test using a female crash test dummy in the driver’s seat to ensure that an airbag and seat belt will prevent fatal and severe injuries to women. Additionally, seat belts now account for smaller drivers who get in frontal crashes.

Pregnant Women and Seat Belts

“The situation is even worse for pregnant women. Although a pregnant crash-test dummy was created back in 1996, testing with it is still not government-mandated either in the US or in the EU. In fact, even though car crashes are the number 1 cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma, we haven’t yet developed a seatbelt that works for pregnant women. Research from 2004 suggests that pregnant women should use the standard seatbelt; but 62% of third-trimester pregnant women don’t fit that design,” according to Caroline Criado Perez in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.

safest pregnancy seat belt positioner

Engineers designed seat belts to create a force that restrains your body in the vehicle seat. The “correct” way for pregnant women to wear their seat belts is across the mid-shoulder/mid-chest and below the bump (under the belly) so that the belt engages their hip bones. We also suggest that pregnant women use a high-quality crash-tested pregnancy seat belt adjuster while they are either a passenger or driver in a vehicle.

Many pregnant women worry a car crash might harm their. This is a concern that every pregnant woman needs to consider before they get into a car. Numerous doctors and experts claim a baby is perfectly safe, if a pregnant woman is wearing her seat belt “correctly”. However, there are certain situations that contradict this claim and still risks even when everything is done “right”.

If a pregnant women gets in a car crash:

  • a baby can be injured by striking the “lower rim of the steering wheel.”
  • a baby also can be injured by the force the seat belt puts on a pregnant women’s abdomen.

Other crash factors that determine whether a baby will be injured while in the womb include:

  • how fast a vehicle is moving/the severity of the crash,
  • how far along the pregnancy is,
  • and if and how mom is wearing the seat belt.

Every pregnant woman should be aware they are more likely to suffer from fatigue or nausea during their second trimester. Pregnant women should try to be a passenger in a car as much as possible.

Guest post: Jennifer L. Donaldson is the founder of The Law Office of Jennifer L. Donaldson. She has more than three decades of litigation experience. She protects Denver residents who experience injuries due to accidents. Jennifer personally understands how important it is to make sure children commute to and from school safely as she has two sons of her own. Additions by Amie Durocher of Safe Ride 4 Kids.

Copyright 2018 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media. Updated 2023.

© mikes photos | pexels
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  1. I am not surprised by the fact that women were not well protects as men at the time seatbelts were mandated. Those of us who were familiar with the belts systems in race cars clearly saw the problem as did many others.The automobile manufacturers resisted having to supply more adequate seat belts for women as a cost issues, which was probably argued could not be “passed through” to the consumer. Research on this issue would be of interest to me, to say nothing of my wife.

    I do not know a husband who would accept the proposition that their wives do not warrant adequate protection.

  2. “Today the population of the U.S. is over 320 million whereas it was 215 million in 1976. There are more drivers on the road today. This would make you think that there would be a higher total number of fatal car crashes in the U.S. today. This is not the case because of seat belts. Seat belts, along with auto safety features and testing, are the primary reasons that driving is safer today than it was 40 years ago.”

    1976 there were a lot less interstate highways. Many of the highways were two lane with crossing intersections and head on collisions were much more common. On interstate highways there are no intersections and the direction of travel is separated by barriers. It may be more truthful to say road design contributed to “safer” figures.

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