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Volvo invented the modern 3-point safety belt — and then gave it to the world.

Meet Nils Bohlin, the Volvo engineer who saved thousands of lives.

Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer in 1959, conceived of and designed something new to the automotive world: a 3-point safety restraint far superior to the lap-only seat belts of the day.

Volvo proudly proclaims that “few people have saved as many lives as Nils Bohlin.” And they’re right. He’s the Volvo engineer, still mostly unknown to this day, who conceived of the V-type, 3-point, “slip-joint” safety belt used in hundreds of millions of cars today.

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Bohlin’s design became the industry standard because it’s easier to use and holds the human body in a seat more effectively. Thus saving, over the decades, millions of lives. To put it in the vernacular of the day, today — over 60 years later — he da man!

Volvo of course has worked long and hard to earn its reputation for safety. The details behind the industry-wide adoption of Nil’s 3-point safety belt are a powerful testament to the Swedish automaker’s commitment to saving human lives, and saving lives regardless of which brand automobile the human chooses to drive. Read on.

An August 2019 Forbes magazine article, researched and written by Douglas Bell, details more of the story behind Nil’s invention and Volvo’s adoption and promotion of the 3-point belt. This article is a re-write of that article, sourced at the end of this post.

Volvo’s president at the time was Gunnar Engellau, himself an engineer, who had suffered direct personal loss from a road traffic accident. A relative had died, partly because of shortcomings in the 2-point belt design— which was not even standard in cars at the time. This personal tragedy encouraged Engellau to seek improvements. He hired Nils Bohlin away from Swedish rival Saab, and focused him on this issue.

Invention vs. Innovation

There were two major problems with the existing 2-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, the human pelvis is hinged, so a single strap doesn’t restrain a person’s torso, leaving their bodies free to hinge and suffer to severe head, chest and spinal injuries in a collision. And if positioned poorly, the belt can also crush internal organs on impact. In short, they don’t work effectively or reliably. Worse yet, people don’t want to wear something clumsy and uncomfortable. If people won’t wear a restraint, it’s useless.

Credit Bohlin for making seat belts more comfortable, and easier to use. You could buckle-up Nil’s 3-point belt across the chest and waist — and while using just one hand. The previous 2-point restraint you still use today on commercial airplanes necessitates using two hands. (You had to think about that, didn’t you?) What seems simple is actually groundbreaking innovation.

But even with the new design improvements, it took six years of Volvo promotion to persuade a minority of Swedes to use the new design. People are usually slow to adopt a new idea, even a good one, and even one that saves lives. (Think of motorcycle rider and cyclists resistance to wearing helmets.) Even Bohlin’s innovative life-saver was not going to be an overnight success.

Innovations often require millions of dollars in research and development and marketing investment. Volvo first extensively tested this design invention in the 1950s and 1960s, running hundreds of experiments, and researching tens of thousands of accidents to verify its efficacy. But scientific data alone isn’t enough to persuade them to make a change in their lives. Mass adoption often requires an emotional or cultural paradigm shift, or both.

Seat belt use in Sweden eventually grew; from an astonishingly low 25% of drivers in 1965, to over 90% of Swedish car users by 1975. This illustrates the reality that invention and innovation are not the same thing; an invention must be adopted or it fails. This makes innovation invariably risky. (For instance, the steam-driven automobile is still a legitimate engine design, yet never was innovated and adopted. In its day, the Stanley Steamer lost out out to market competition from gasoline engines.

Without Volvo’s persistent leadership, modern seat belts might not have been adopted by the industry for another decade or more. And here’s where the story gets even more interesting…

Capitalism With A Conscience: Volvo’s Remarkable Act of Generosity

Volvo patented the designs, which of course is standard industrial practice to protect other companies from copying their investment. Good patents offer a demonstrable, defensible advantage over rivals — and twenty years of monopoly rights in the U.S. This put Volvo in position to charge significant license fees to rivals, or even, as would be likely today, retain exclusivity and promote their cars as the safest on the road with the only 3-point safety restraint. (Think about a Coronavirus vaccine in 2021. Will the first pharmaceutical company be the only to claim a sole cure for Covid-19, or take the noble, anti-capitalist action of sharing their life-saving serum?)

Remarkably, Volvo made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the R&D, they gifted their 3-point safety belt design to competitors. This enabled mass adoption, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and reduced the severity of injury of millions more people.

Billions of people have used Bohlin’s and Volvo’s invention last year alone.  The 3-point safety belt is one of the most important safety innovations in the automobile industry’s 130-year history. A scientific study by Bohlin, commissioned by Volvo, and published in 1967, studied 28,000 road traffic accidents. Unbelted occupants sustained fatal injuries throughout the speedscale. But, remarkably, of the 37,511 people involved in the accidents, no passengers wearing a 3-point seatbelt died at speeds under 60 mph. In other words, those wearing 3-point belts survived all accidents except those traveling faster than 60mph.

Beyond the human lives calculation, consider the insurance industry ramifications. Tens of billions of insurance dollar losses have been avoided since 1959, by millions of mitigated injuries and avoided deaths. In turn, this saved people millions of dollars in insurance premiums because car safety so dramatically improved. The world doesn’t have to pay such a high price for automobile travel in dollars and, more importantly, with so many lives.

The Dollar Value of Volvo’s Gift

So what was the monetary value of Volvo’s giveawy to the automobile industry? To take a stab at this, let’s guesstimate a $10 licensing fee for every car made in 1978, the penultimate year of Volvo’s patent, and its father-figure’s final year in charge. By 1978, Gunnar Engellau, who commissioned this design, had grown Volvo revenues to a record $1 billion. Overall auto industry output was soaring too, producing over 40 million vehicles that year. A $10 fee for each of 40 million cars nets a hypothetical $400 million in royalties for Volvo. But the company valued passenger safety over potential profits. Bravo to them, for this noble act.

Few comparably generous, humanitarian acts come to mind, especially in the automobile industry. One might be Tesla’s 2014 decision to make some of its battery patents “open source” to stimulate electric car production and expand EV markets. But one could argue this was also self-serving, whereas Volvo’s decision to share Nils’ 3-point slip-jointed decision without collecting justifiable fees for it offered no direct benefits – – other than saving thousands upon thousands of lives.

All of which demonstrates where Volvo’s head and heart were, an all too rare exception in an increasingly dollar-focused modern culture. Which brings us to the present day, 2020 and beyond. What will today’s medical and scientific researchers and innovators who develop the first effective Covid-19 vaccines do? Will seemingly unquenchable thirst for corporate profits delay the necessity of immediately creating (let alone distributing) literally billions of doses of vaccine for a world crippled by Coronavirus?

We can only hope these momentous decisions will be made with the same generous leadership spirit of Volvo some six decades ago.

Thanks to August 2019 Forbes magazine and Douglas Bell for the source article for this Popular Mechanix blogpost:

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