The Unsung Heroes of Automobiles: Seat Belts

Buckling your seat belt is the single most important thing you can do when you get into your car. According to the NHSTA, this simple act saves an estimated 15,000 American lives each year.  In 2017, almost half (47%) of the 37,000 people killed in car crashes, were not wearing seat belts.

Before seatbelts became commonplace in cars, people who got into accidents often died from blunt force trauma suffered during impact.  Head and face injuries were common from passengers slamming into the windshield or steering wheel.  Ejections also happened with much more frequency.

It’s hard to imagine, but as little as 50 years ago, people went without safety features that we consider routine in the modern-day.

Read on for an in-depth lesson on the history of seat belts, and how they became a standard part in every car.

Seat Belt Terminology

There are many different types of seatbelts.  As safety standards have changed throughout the years, so has seat belt design.  Below are the main types of belts

  • 2-Point Seat Belt, Also known as a “lap belt,” is a restraint system that has two attachment points and is meant for use across the hips and thighs of the user.
  • 3-Point Seat Belt, Also known as a lap/shoulder (or combination) belt is a Y-shaped seat belt that has both a lap and a shoulder portion.  There are three anchor points in this belt, one on each side of the hips and another across the shoulder.
  • 4-Point Harness has two shoulder belts and two lap belts which connect in the middle.  This type of seatbelt is common in off-road and racing vehicles.
  • 5 point Harness, typically found in child safety seats and racing cars.  A five-point harness has two shoulder belts which connect to the lap portion which is in turn connected to a belt that comes between the legs.  There are a total of five points to where the belt attaches to the seat.
  • 6 point harness, similar to the five-point harness, except there are two belts between the legs.  The six-point harness has become popular in NASCAR after the death of Dale Earnhart.

Until the 1980s,  the auto industry mainly offered three-point belts only in the front seats of cars. Lap belts were installed in backseats. There were many injuries associated with wearing only lap belts.  Eventually, three-point belts became standard in the backseats of all cars.

Seat Belt Syndrome

Seatbelts are most helpful in restraining those who are involved in rollover type accidents. They are also useful at keeping people from being ejected from their cars

The seat belt does not alter the amount of force put on the body during an accident. As a result, some people suffer from injuries sustained by the new distribution of that force through the seatbelt. These injuries are collectively known as “Seat Belt Syndrome.”

Seat Belt Syndrome is mostly associated with two-point harnesses but has been reported by those wearing three-point seat belts as well.

Common injuries include the “seat belt sign;” where the marks of the seatbelt can be seen clearly on the outside of the body.  This is accompanied by injuries to the lower back and abdominal cavity.  Often, internal organs are also affected.

Internal bleeding is sometimes not detected until hours after the crash and at that point is much more difficult to control.  Children are especially at risk of these injuries as they are smaller and improper seat belt fit is more likely.

Some seatbelt injuries can result from defective seatbelts. In that case, it may be wise to consult an auto accident attorney who can help you get the compensation you deserve.

A Chronological Timeline of Seat Belts

Seat belts have been around in some form since the late 1800s. Below is a list of the most important developments regarding belt design and implementation.


The first U.S. patent for a “safety belt” was issued to Edward J. Claghorn of New York.  While many articles on the internet site this as the first-ever seat belt for an automobile, Claghorn’s Safety belt was designed to allow for people to be hoisted up and down from buildings while holding onto various objects.


The first patent granted for an automotive lap belt.


Several American Physicians install safety belts in their vehicles and urge other citizens to do the same.


The first seatbelts are factory installed in two different NASH (a now-defunct car brand) models, the Statesman and the Ambassador.

Sports Car Club of America requires competing drivers to wear lap belts. Also, the American Medical Association House of Delegates votes to support the installation of lap belts in all automobiles


Nils Bohlin, a Volvo Safety Design Engineer, patents the “Basics of Proper Restraint Systems for Car Occupants,” the first 3-point safety belt


Ralph Nadar’s groundbreaking book, Unsafe at Any Speed, is published accusing the auto industry of failing to make cars as safe as possible.  The book becomes a bestseller, leading to significant changes industry-wide.  The book has far-reaching effects, including more government oversight. Less than a year later a bill is signed requiring all vehicles have seat belts factory installed.


President Lyndon B Johnson signs The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act requiring all automobiles to comply with certain safety standards by the year 1968.


Three-point seat belts are added to the backseats of all cars after “Seat Belt Syndrome” is recognized as a serious after-effect of many accidents.


Nils Bohlin dies and Volvo releases a statement estimating that the invention has already saved over one million lives.

Today, thanks to the tireless work of many over decades, seat belts come standard in every car.  Most modern people don’t even consider this feature when shopping for a car.

Seat Belt Laws

As of 2019, only one state, New Hampshire, has failed to enact any type of seatbelt law. All other states have laws covering either front-seat passengers, back seat passengers, or both.

Final Thoughts

While the safety belt has been around in some form for over 200 years, it wasn’t until the 1980’s when seat belts as we know them today began being installed in both the front and back of every car.  In a world where seat belts are now ubiquitous, it is easy to take your seat belt for granted.

For more interesting auto-related articles, visit us, and don’t forget to buckle up!

This post was written by: Kate Westall


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About Kate Westall

I am Kate Westall, a freelance writer and a professional blogger, who enjoys enlightening others about unknown and little-known facts. I love to write on all general and professional topics on Automotive.

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