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The Guy We All Need To Thank: Nils Bohlin

What would you call a guy who has saved approximately 11,000 lives every year in the US alone and way more than that around the world?  You’d probably think that you were reading a cracker of a superhero comic but this guy is for real.  Was he a war hero?  An emergency response guy like a medic, firefighter or cop?

Nope – he was an inventor.  What he invented was the three-point seatbelt.  His name was Nils Bohlin. In later life, he looked a bit like Father Christmas. Which is kind of appropriate, considering the gift he’s given to the world.

Bohlin was born in 1920 in Sweden, the country where he worked after graduating with an engineering diploma.  His first significant employer was SAAB , but he wasn’t working on their cars; his area was on the planes.  Specifically, he got to work on ejector seats, which were in hot demand at the time, the time in question being World War 2 when pilots were getting shot down and needing to bail out ASAP.  At the time, there was a bit of competition going on, and the German aircraft manufacturer Heinkel got the idea at the same time as SAAB and managed to get an operational ejector seat first.  (Did they really independently get the same idea simultaneously?  Or was there some skulduggery going on?  Plot for a WWII spy thriller here.)

After the war was over (and SAAB had got a good working ejector seat), a new problem was cropping up.  The demand for masses of fighter and bomber planes had died down but in the post-war period of prosperity, the demand for and use of the car had soared.  It wasn’t just a toy for the rich any more.  With a lot more cars on the roads going faster thanks to all the technology developed during wartime, there were a lot more accidents.  A sort of seat belt had been invented: a two-point lap belt with a buckle that did up in the middle over your stomach.  If you’ve been in some classic cars, you may have seen them (I have some very dim memories of using one of these, possibly in the ancient Mini  owned by my grandparents when I was little… I think).  While these two-point jobs were a heck of a lot better than nothing, they were not ideal.  For a start off, they didn’t stop your head pitching forwards during a crash thanks to all that momentum with the end result that the driver whacked his/her head on the steering wheel.  You also had the problem of sliding up and out of the seat belt.  Then there was the belt itself.  At high speeds, that meant all the momentum and force was caught and stopped by a band across your tummy.  With a heavy metal buckle right in the middle where the force would be greatest. At best, this would make you puke.  At worst, it would cause nasty internal injuries.  Don’t even think about what would happen if the person wearing the lap belt was a pregnant woman.  Something had to be done.

The something was done by Volvo, who hired Nils Bohlin to try to improve the design.  This was 1958 and Volvo had decided that one of their key design principles was going to be safety, safety, safety, rather than merely concentrating on power and speed (one of the CEO’s relatives had been killed in a car crash).  Bohlin was the perfect choice.  After all, he’d had to think about stresses on the human body at speed, restraints and sort of thing when developing ejector seats.  Ejector seats had four-pointer restraints but Bohlin knew that this wasn’t going to work in a family car.  He wanted a design that could be put on with one hand.  As he had four stepchildren and one child, he probably knew all too well that getting multiple straps onto a wriggly child was pretty tricky!  On top of that, he had consumer attitudes to contend with.  As he said, “The pilots I worked with in the aerospace industry were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute.” The restraints had to be comfortable.

It took him a year of testing, going back to the drawing board, retesting, tinkering and general improving until he came up with the three-point system we are all familiar with today: a belt running from shoulder to hip that attaches to a fixed point at hip level on the opposite side from the shoulder-height anchor points.  It was simple.  It could be done up with one hand.  It was comfortable for men and women (this was the 1950s when the ideal female figure was very, very curvy…).  This spread the force of impact across the ribcage and abdomen, which reduced the risk of internal injury dramatically and made slipping out over the top less likely.

His new design was patented in the US in 1959 and you can see it here.  However, even though Bohlin and Volvo held the patent, Volvo was public-spirited enough to allow other manufacturers to use this life-saving design for free, putting people ahead of profits (and giving their company image and reputation one heck of a boost).

Nils Bohlin demonstrates his invention to the public.

It took a while for the new invention to catch on.  After all, people just weren’t used to wearing seat belts on buses or the like.  They weren’t planning on crashing (who does?) so why on earth did they need to wear a seat belt.  Seat belt use wasn’t mandatory (and belts were only installed in the driver and front passenger seats at first), so a fair bit of PR work was needed to educate the public.  At first, seat belts were just nice accessories in a car.  However, a demo using eggs in rolling cart, one with a seatbelt and one without, got the message across, along with a bunch of other stunts presented in a world tour.  In 1969 in the US, seatbelts (in the front seats at least) became compulsory.  Today, in all developed economies, seat belt use is mandatory front and back.  On top of that, even the centre rear seat lap belt that most of us grew up with is being phased out, with more and more cars offering three-point seat belts for all five (or seven) seats.

The design has been tweaked a fair bit over the years, with pretensioners being added by Mercedes Benz in the 1980s, Audi adding height adjustments and those bra-strap style length adjusters being replaced by retracting inertia reels.  However, the basic design is still the same as Nils Bohlin’s original design.  Since its invention, it has saved over a million lives, and the US safety stats figure that seat belt use saves over 11,000 million lives every year.

Bohlin also invented the buckle design that is used on his seat belt, and he also worked on the Side Impact Protection System that has been another Volvo special that has since spread to other marques.

Bohlin became head of Volvo’s safety design team, and received numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including being inducted into the Health and Safety Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 2002 upon his death.

Despite his invention, seat belt laws and more, some people still don’t seem to get the point and insist on not wearing their seat belts.  Come on, folks!  To quote Winnie-the-Pooh’s Eeyore, “the funny thing about accidents is that you never have them until you’re having them.” Buckle up!

“My greatest pleasure comes when I meet people who tell me that a seat belt saved their life or the life of a loved one.  Many inventions make life better for people. I have been fortunate to work in the area of safety engineering, where innovation doesn’t just improve our lives; it actually can save lives.”—Nils Bohlin

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