As the humble seatbelt celebrates half a century of hard work, here’s a look at the man who came up with the ingenious design.
IN 1958, a 38-year-old Swede called Nils Bohlin began work at Volvo Car Corporation in Gothenburg, Sweden, as the company’s first chief safety engineer. At that time, not even Volvo’s then-president, Gunnar Engellau, was to know that Bohlin’s hiring would save well over a million lives around the world.
Gunnar had lost a relative in a car crash and was thus even more intent on pursuing Volvo’s founders’ commitment to vehicle safety. Bohlin had an impeccable pedigree in safety systems – he worked in the Swedish aviation industry designing ejector seats and restraints for pilots – and he went on to invent the three-point safety belt for Volvo.
“Basically what Bohlin did was to take the aircraft safety belt and adapt it for use in a car,” says Hugo Mellander, an ex-colleague of Bohlin’s at Volvo’s Advanced Engineering Crash Safety Department (and now president of his own company, Traffic Safety Research and Engineering AB).
Back in the 1950s, car safety belts were crude devices called “lap belts” that fitted across the hips. They were seen as optional extras and most car buyers opted for a radio instead. Few drivers liked them or wore them, for good reasons. They may have held the hips in place but the upper body was still free to slam forward into the steering wheel or dashboard in a crash. Also, during the huge deceleration forces involved in a collision, the belt and its buckle dug in to the body’s soft abdomen causing internal injuries.
“Bohlin engineered the safety belt’s geometry so the buckle was a long way away from the body,” says Mellander. “He also looked at submarining and noticed that occupants, especially in frontal collisions, were found to slip down and under lap belts.”
Bohlin put his brains and experience behind finding a simple solution that would keep the occupant firmly in place during a crash using the stronger bony parts of the body, namely the ribcage and sternum. By 1959, just a year into his new job, he had invented, engineered, tested and launched his three-point safety belt.
Not only was it immeasurably more effective than its predecessors, but importantly it was convenient and comfortable.
“The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything that would keep them safe in the event of a crash,” Bohlin said, “but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable, even for a minute. My design works as much because the belt is comfortable for the user as it does because it is safer.”
With typical Swedish modesty, he made his invention sound simple.
“I realised both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and one across the hips,” he said. “The belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down the occupant’s hip as possible, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, affective and could be put on with one hand.”
Volvo introduced the double-strap, triple-anchor design as standard in their P120 Amazon and PV544 saloon in August 1959 and it soon started saving lives. The company patented the three-point safety belt under the title, Basics of Proper Restraint Systems for Car Occupants but it knew it couldn’t keep such a life-saving innovation purely for itself, so it made it freely available to all other automotive manufactures to use.
Sweden soon saw the benefits of making people buckle up: In 1975, it became the third country to make seatbelts mandatory for the driver (after Australia in 1970 and France in 1973).
Today, Britain’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that safety belts prevent 100,000 injuries annually in the United States alone and reduce the risk of death in car crashes by 45%.
Industry magazine Automotive News Europe says: “Fifty years later, the safety belt is standard equipment. Engineers have enhanced it, but Bohlin’s basic design is unchanged.”
Looking at pictures of Bohlin in later life, one is tempted to view him as a benign white-haired granddad. But former colleague Mellander remembers him as a hard-headed achiever: “He was very focused and very stubborn, with a strong belief in what he did. If he had an idea it was, ‘Let’s do it now!’ His direct link to Volvo’s then-president, Gunnar Engellau, enabled him to get things done quickly.”
So was Bohlin driven by the love of invention or the fact that he was saving lives?
“Both,” reflects Mellander. “He was a true engineer and inventor. But a lot of people don’t understand that the most important thing he did was to follow up his work with painstaking research, investigating over 28,000 vehicle crashes and creating the Volvo Accident Research Team – something that was completely unheard of at the time.”
Maintaining Bohlin’s legacy today, Volvo’s own accident database now contains details of almost 40,000 accidents with more than 60,000 occupants.
Mellander spent many hours travelling on planes with Bohlin attending safety conferences around the world.
“I learned a lot. They were nice times. Bohlin was a family-oriented guy who liked to work with his hands. He was always working on his house and coming into work with paint on his hands. He was also sometimes extremely hot-tempered. If someone said something he didn’t like, he would tell you – very definitely!”
Bohlin retired from Volvo in 1985 but he was not forgotten by the company, or the world. In 1995, he received a medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering, and in 1999 he was enshrined in the US Automotive Hall of Fame.
On Sept 26, 2002, Bohlin was due to be inducted into the American National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. He sent his two stepsons, Gunnar and Jonas Ornmark to receive the award for him. He died that day aged 82, due to after effects of a stroke, but he knew his name had been added to a list of engineering heroes which included the likes of the airplane-inventing Wright brothers.
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