Exploring Human Potential

Seat Belts: Why We Need Laws And Government Regulation

Posted on | September 1, 2009 | 1 Comment

Mike Magee MD


The first seat belt installed in an American automobile was featured in a Nash model in 1949. It wasn’t the first indication that automobile manufacturers realized that their machines could be hazardous to our health. In 1901 the Oldsmobile rolled out the speedometer and my own state Connecticut set the speed limit in cities at 12 miles per hour. Perhaps that was in response to the first highly publicized death of a pedestrian, Henry Bliss, at the hands of a New York City cabbie two years earlier.1

There would be other advances over the next fifty years like the 3 color back lights in 1920 and padded dashboards and seat backs in 1937. But the largest breakthrough came in 1949 when a Volvo engineer, Nils Bohlin modified an airplane device to create the three point seat belt.2 A simple design, but ingenious with a strap across the hips and another across the chest anchored together at the same point on the floor. Fourteen years later, the advance made it to America, not exactly with wide support. Manufacturers were concerned that it would reinforce public safety concerns about the auto in general. And Americans wanted to “feel free” and unencumbered.3

In 1968, the Federal government first weighed in requiring that all passenger cars be equipped with seat belts.4, But six years later, with the government poised to require that autos be engineered to not start unless seat belts were engaged, the public (with support from industry), told Congress to lay off. And they did.1 A decade later New York became the first state to require seat belt use.6 Of course requiring is not the same as enforcing. In fact, a study in 1981 showed that just one in 10 Americans were buckling up.1

Where are we today? All states but New Hampshire have seat belt laws.Dual front air bags have been required since 1998. And a national “click it or ticket” campaign has boosted usage to 83% in 2008. Most importantly, auto deaths adjusted for population changes have declined by over 35% in the past 30 years.7

What would engineer Nils Bohlin think about his invention, and its impact on Americans today? Certainly he would be rightly proud that his invention had saved millions of lives over the years. But he would likely been saddened and somewhat mystified by how long it takes Americans to get there act together, even when their own families lives are at risk. What we are willing to tolerate, in the name of personal freedom – whether it be seat belts or 1/6 th lacking access to affordable health care – boggles the imagination. Our laws and our government, though slow to act, historically have protected us from ourselves. Especially when it comes to health and safety, we need to trust it more.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Dimeo-Ediger, W. Saved By The Belt. National Geographic. Sept., 2009

2. Nils Bohlin, Inventor of the Seat Belt. Sept. 26, 2002.  NYT.

3. Nauss DW.  Seat Belt Resistance Still Widespread. Chicago Times.January 5, 1998.

4. Safety Belt Use Laws.

5. Getting America To Buckle Up. Traffic Safety Center.

6. Fasten Your Seatbelts. NYT. Nov.6, 1981.

7. Auto Deaths Decline In 40 States. Insurance Journal. Feb. 6, 2009


One Response to “Seat Belts: Why We Need Laws And Government Regulation”

  1. diana
    July 15th, 2012 @ 5:01 am

    I think you need to move to New Hampshire 🙂

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