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Safe behind the wheel in 1970, thanks to new belt technology made in Sweden. Photo: Volvo


…that seat belts were invented in Sweden?

The topic of safety has never been far from the top of the agenda in Sweden. The domestic car industry has a reputation for turning out particularly robust models, and no wonder, given that around every corner there could be an elk in the middle of the road.

As long ago as 1959, Volvo hit the headlines when development ...

.. engineer Nils Ivar Bohlin filed a patent for the three-point seat belt. Rudimentary belt systems had been around for some time, not least in the USA in the shape of the shoulder harnesses fit-ted to the record-breaking 1902 Baker Torpedo. But it was Volvo who brought the seat belt to a wider market. The basic design of the three- point seat belt remains largely unchanged to this day, with the one major difference that today the belt forms part of a high-tech safety system that is constantly being optimized. One part of this system is the active belt-tensioner which prepares the vehicle occupants for an impending impact or emergency braking maneuver by tightening the belt and thereby shifting the body into the safest position.


The seat belt’s key role in occupant protec-tion was not restricted to Volvo models and in Germany the introduction of the “safety belt” caused quite a stir. “Belt up, please” ran the headline in the German weekly newspa-per “Die Zeit” on January 2, 1976. What had happened? The government of the day had introduced a new law prescribing the fitting of seat belts in all passenger cars built in or after 1974. Initially, belts only had to be fitted on the front seats, but this nevertheless mar-ked the dawn of a new, safer era in motor vehicle transport. But while the law said the belts must be fitted, it stopped short of re-quiring occupants to wear them. For a while this led to amusing scenarios at intersections and traffic lights, with journalists knocking on car windows, holding out microphones and asking: “How does it feel with a belt on?” or “Why aren’t you belted up?”.

Then, as people struggled to come to terms with wearing a seat belt, weird rumors began to circulate. People were going to be unable to escape from their cars if ever they happened to land in a river, they said. Women drivers and passengers complained that wearing a seat belt would have a negative impact on the shape and size of their breasts. There were no bounds to the absurdity of the tales doing the rounds. Even former VW boss Kurt Lotz chipped in: “Safety is hard to sell,” he announced in a 1970 interview. History would soon prove him wrong. Today, 95 percent of all drivers in Central Europe belt up. “The seat belt remains the number one life saver in the car,” says Stefanie Ritter, accident researcher at German technical inspectorate Dekra. “Even low speed impacts generate forces that the human body cannot simply absorb. And for occupants who are not belted up, even airbags are largely ineffectual.”