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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 9 | October 21, 2000 Subscribe

Three-point safety belt is American, not Swedish invention

Sometimes it's important to set the record straight, giving credit where it's due. This is among the aims of two Swedish researchers who say the three-point belt system, long assumed to be the brainchild of Swedish automaker Volvo, rightly should be considered an American invention.

Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven designed and patented the first threepoint belt in the United States in 1951. It's essentially the same belt system that's in use today, a combination lap belt and diagonal shoulder portion designed as a continuous strap. This design was the basis for the single-band lap/shoulder belt offered as standard equipment in Volvos starting with 1959 models.

Volvo's decision to install such belts gave rise to the widely held, but incorrect, impression that the three-point safety belt is a Swedish innovation, Rune Andreasson and Claes-Goran Backstrom explain in a new book.

"That Sweden . . . has been able to make a pioneering global contribution to the safety of automobile travel is something to be proud of," the authors say. "In addition, we feel great satisfaction at having been able to clarify who should receive the honors for having developed the modern automotive seat belt."

History of the three-point belt

Griswold had worked on such a belt for the American Air Force in 1945. DeHaven was a combat pilot during World War I who later conducted research on deceleration. Further research on the ability of humans to tolerate rapid and sudden deceleration was conducted by another American, Air Force Colonel John Paul Stapp.

But American carmakers showed little interest in safety belts at the time this research was going on. U.S. manufacturers were offering lap belts only as optional equipment in the mid-1950s. Lap belts didn't become standard equipment in the United States until 1964 (see "50 year saga getting safety belts in cars," Feb. 29, 1992), and then only in response to state laws requiring them.

From the work by DeHaven and others, safety belt development switched to Sweden in the early 1950s as part of an industrial safety plan of the State Power Board in Sweden, now known as Vattenfall. Andreasson and Backstrom explain that Vattenfall was interested in protecting workers in company vehicles as part of its occupational safety program.

Using the research by DeHaven and Stapp, two engineers at Vattenfall constructed a two-point, or diagonal, automotive safety belt. At the same time, they indicated that a three-point belt—a combination of the two-point belt plus a lap belt—would provide even more effective protection.

A medical advisor to Vattenfall contacted the head of Volvo in 1956 and presented the idea of equipping cars with safety belts. As a result, Volvo installed two-point belts in 1958, as did Swedish automaker Saab. Beginning with 1959 models, Volvo made three-point belts standard.

Volvo sought a Swedish patent for the belt based on research and development conducted by Vattenfall, whose work, in turn, was based on the earlier work by the Americans. According to the authors, 11 years of disputes finally led to a patent for Volvo — not for the belt design itself but for a "fitting application for a three-point belt."

Belt installation lagged in United States

Lap and shoulder belts were legally required in the front seats of cars in the United States beginning in 1968. But no specific design was mandated, and most domestic models were equipped with separate lap and shoulder belts. Occupants had to buckle each separately, and the failure to use one or the other portion compromised protection.

Three-point safety belts weren't widely available in the United States until a federal law began requiring them in 1973. Now such belts are acknowledged as the single most effective safety device in passenger vehicles — when they're buckled up.

About the authors

Rune Andreasson and Claes-Goran Backstrom are medical doctors who have focused on occupant safety and injury prevention throughout their careers. Backstrom interned under Stig Lindgren, the Vattenfall medical advisor who suggested that Volvo install safety belts. Lindgren also served as a mentor to Andreasson, with whom he later collaborated.

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