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December 10, 2021

Over Fifty Years, the V-Shaped Three-Point Safety Belt From Volvo Saved Well Over One Million Lives

There is a saying that the simplest is often the best. However, it was only towards the end of the 1950s that the car safety belt evolved into its current design, thanks to Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin.

There were different types of belt before that. Back in the 1930s, US doctors were beginning to impose demands that cars should be equipped with safety belts. The two-point lap belt was the most common solution, but there were also different variants of the three-point safety belt. The problem was that they did not protect their users sufficiently effectively, especially not at high speeds.

During the latter half of the 1950s, Volvo engineers had developed a number of protective systems intended to prevent a vehicle’s occupant from hitting interior components or to lessen the severity of such consequences in a collision. These systems included a collapsible steering column, padded dashboard and attachment points for diagonal two-point belts in the front seats.

Volvo had already been equipping its vehicles with anchors for two-point front safety belts since 1957, but early tests of a third “diagonal belt” did not meet the company’s safety standards. The inconvenient buckle positioning at the ribcage caused damage to the body’s soft organs instead of protecting them.

Volvo president Gunnar Engellau had a relative die in a road collision, owing partly to the shortcomings of the two-point belt. He therefore gave Bohlin the brief to develop a better alternative. Bohlin soon realized that both the upper and lower body had to be properly secured in place, with one belt across the chest and another across the hips. His biggest challenge was to create a buckling system that was both effective and simple to use. Bohlin wanted a three-point belt that could be put on using just one hand.

In 1958 his work resulted in a patent application for Bohlin’s three-point belt. What Bohlin integrated into his design, and which he regarded as most important for a vehicle’s safety belt, involved both a hip or lap belt and also a diagonal belt across the upper body, which was positioned correctly from a physiological viewpoint, and attached at a low anchorage point beside the seat. The belt geometry formed a “V” with the peak pointing down towards the floor. This design allowed the belt to stay in position when it was under load.

Nils Bohlin, inventor of the three-point seatbelt. The reason the three-point seatbelt is so widely adopted is actually because Volvo opened up the patent so that any car manufacturer could use it in their design. They decided that the invention was so significant, it had more value as a free life saving tool than something to profit from.

The anchorage points was the crucial difference between the effective V-shaped belt according to Bohlin's design and the previous three-point Y-type design. Bohlin’s belt was, in fact, an effective demonstration of geometrical perfection rather than a cutting-edge innovation. The solution and the benefits of the three-point design soon spread throughout the world since Volvo immediately made Bohlin’s patent available to all automakers.

In 1959, the patented three-point safety belt was introduced in the Volvo 120 (also known as the Amazon) and PV 544 on the Nordic markets. Volvo thus became the first automaker in the world to equip its vehicles with safety belts as standard equipment.

During his time at Volvo, Bohlin came to lead the company's safety drive towards ever-safer occupant protection in Volvo vehicles. He was quick to realize the need for side-impact protection, so in the 1970s he started working on what eventually resulted in the patented Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) of which Volvo was among the world’s first automakers to introduce.


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