Volvo likes to say that “few people have saved as many lives as Nils Bohlin,” creator of the three-point seat belt in 1959. You might never have heard of Bohlin before now. Nonetheless, you buckle up with his invention, every day. (At least we hope so.)
Bohlin, 20 years-old when he invented his three-point seat belt, died at 82, long enough to see the universal adoption of his invention across the automobile industry. Back in 1959, when the three-point seat belt was new, users immediately found they were more user-friendly, being easier to open and close compared to the old two-point safety belt. And of course, the three-point belt was safer, affording much greater protection by securing the chest area.
Turning Tragedy into Triumph: Creation of the Three-Point Seat Belt
In 2019, the three-point safety belt turned 60
, and Bohlin’s invention is believed to have saved more than one million lives. The birth of Bohlin’s invention begins with a tragedy. The president of Volvo, engineer Gunnar Engellau
, lost a relative to a car crash. The death was attributed, in part, to the faulty two-point seat belt design, this at a time when safety belts were not yet standard features. The safety
of passengers was not, at that point, a primary focus for automakers.
Engellau determined to change this. He did so by stealing Nils Bohlin away from Volvo competitor Saab, charging him with inventing a better belt. Once Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt, Volvo standardized the feature—the first automaker to standardize safety belts.
While Volvo patented the three-point safety belt the automaker made the patent freely available to all. Volvo had put money into this project, and might have recouped its investment and made millions more, racking up licensing fees from rival car companies. But that was never the plan. The plan was to prevent tragedy, such as the one that befell Engellau’s relative.
The seat belt may not have been standard across the board in 1959, but it is now. Bohlin’s three-point seat belt has not only saved at least one million lives, but prevented or reduced the severity of injuries for millions. Each year, billions of people use Bohlin’s creation, a major innovation in the history of the 130-year history of the automobile.