September 21

This Day in History

Automotive

Sep 21, 2002:

Nils Bohlin, inventor of the three-point seatbelt, dies at 82

On September 21, 2002, Swedish engineer Nils Bohlin dies after a heart attack. Bohlin spent most of the 1950s developing ejection seats for Saab airplanes, and in 1958, he became the Volvo Car Corporation's first safety engineer. At Volvo, he designed the first three-point safety belt--a seatbelt with one strap that crossed diagonally across the user's chest and another that secured his or her hips. "In a way," Bohlin said shortly before he died, "my design works as much because the belt is comfortable for the user as it does because it is safer. The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don't want to be uncomfortable even for a minute."

At the time that Bohlin introduced his three-point belt, not many non–racecar-drivers used seatbelts at all. (In fact, they were optional equipment in most cars: buyers had to pay extra if they wanted them.) The belts that were in use consisted of a single lap belt with a buckle that fastened over the stomach. In high-speed crashes, they would keep a person in his or her seat, but the abdominal pressure they caused could result in serious internal injuries. Bohlin's belt, by contrast, was much safer; it was just as easy to fasten; and it protected both the upper and lower body.

By 1959, the three-point belt was standard equipment in all Swedish Volvos, and by 1963, the company was installing the belts in all of its cars. Volvo even provided Bohlin's design to other carmakers for free. The design has changed very little in the past 50 years--it was practically perfect just as Bohlin designed it--and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that buckling up with a Bohlin belt reduces a person's risk of dying in a car crash by almost 50 percent. "There is," said Volvo's CEO, "a little bit of Nils Bohlin in every car."

On the day that he died, Bohlin was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

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