Seat belt

The seat belt comes from a Swedish plane

Nils Ivar Bohlin (Härnösand, July 17, 1920 – Tranäs, September 21, 2002)

The three-point seat belt in the car was invented by the Swedish engineer Nils Ivar Bohlin. He was employed by car manufacturer Volvo when he acquired his patent in 1958. Especially in motorsport, the belt is as old as the car itself.

But it happened again and again that reckless drivers who drove without a seatbelt survived an accident without a scratch, while others, who were properly restrained, died under their overturned car. Was a girdle a curse or a blessing?

Some brands, Porsche for example, already had an optional lap belt, a two-point belt, in the 1950s. Others refused to wear a seatbelt because it suggested that their car was not safe.

Bohlin studied mechanics for two years after high school in his hometown of Härnösand. He first found work with the Swedish Air Force and from 1942 with the aircraft manufacturer Saab (Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget). In between he studied aviation medicine and ergonomics.

This served him well when he was put in charge at Saab from 1955 on the development of ejection seats and systems to rescue pilots from supersonic aircraft.

After one of his relatives died in a car accident in 1957, Volvo CEO Gunnar Engelau wanted to improve the safety of his cars. With that goal in mind, Engelau took Bohlin away from Saab in 1958.

As head of the safety department, Bohlin set up investigative teams to analyze passenger car and truck accidents. The years between 1959 and 1969 were crucial for Bohlin's work. Like all car manufacturers, Volvo had all kinds of crash tests carried out on a permanent basis.

It turned out that the two-point lap belt was absolutely inadequate. The passenger was thrown with his upper body against the steering wheel and dashboard. The first alternative – a two-point belt diagonally across the chest and over one shoulder – also failed in the crashes.

The seat belt was above the body's center of gravity. In a crash, the passenger slipped below the seat belt. The belt cut him in the throat or face, if not decapitated.

Based on his experience with pilots in their cockpits, Bohlin came up with the idea of combining the two belts into a three-point belt. In August 1959, Volvo equipped a PV 544 as the first car in the world with the three-pointer. Initially only for the domestic market, after 1963 also for export.

But the American car industry fought the Swedish novelty with fire and sword. Bohlin traveled to the United States to see what was going on. There it turned out that the Americans used a completely different kind of dolls for their tests.

Volvo had a completely new test site built for Bohlin in Denmark, just to prove that their dolls were more lifelike, more like the human body.

The Americans did not budge. New tests showed the belts tore, they said. Bohlin went to the States again, discovered a fitting with a sharp edge, had it filed away and the Americans were once again on the show. Meanwhile, the years passed.

In 1967 Volvo published a study of 28,000 accidents involving only Volvo cars. Everything showed that the new belt reduced the risk by 50 to 60 percent. The study hit like a bomb.

The American car manufacturers, so afraid of the violation of the freedom of the driver, also tacked.

Together with a fellow engineer, Bohlin traveled as a missionary from city to country to explain his evidence.

The images of a video spot in which he showed a large imitation egg that was secured with a three-point belt became very famous. "The human body is as fragile as an egg," Bohlin said. "And look how safely this egg is stored."
Bohlin repeated in interviews that he had always found it strange that airline pilots would put up with anything when it came to their safety, while the car drivers were willing to sacrifice only a little comfort.

He enjoyed it when people told him that their lives or the lives of their loved ones had been saved by the belt. In 1985 he retired.

He spent his old age retired to Tranäs, Sweden, where he especially enjoyed his garden. Occasionally he was taken from his green biotope to receive an award.

The German patent office in Munich tucked its belt into a list of the eight most important inventions in the office's centennial history.

In 1999 he was inducted into the American Automotive Hall of Fame and in 2002 into the American Inventors Hall of Fame, where greats such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers stand guard.

A few days before he had to leave for the festivities in the US, he suffered a heart attack. He died precisely on September 21, 2002, the day he received official recognition from the Americans he had found so difficult to convince.