In late 2012 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released the results of a new seat belt survey. While there are statistical variations by region and “day of the week,” the overall take-away from the survey is that passengers of today use seat belts 86 percent of the time… an all-time high.
However, as recently as the late 1950s and early ’60s, auto manufacturers were comfortable with their impression that consumers didn’t care about safety, and the government was reluctant to step in to regulate the industry.
Here’s why today’s drivers enjoy a relatively high degree of car safety.
George Cayley (1773-1857) was a British engineer and inventor who dedicated his life to experimenting with flying machines. He was the first inventor to develop a seat belt of any kind. Cayley eventually crafted a glider he thought would fly. History is vague as to whether he asked his footman, his coachman, or his butler (one source says it was a “small boy”) to act as the pilot. However, one of these brave people successfully guided Cayley’s flying machine on a 900-foot flight across a small valley (Brompton Dale) in 1849. The pilot was presumably wearing the seat belt Cayley is credited with having invented.
The first American to patent a seat belt was Edward J. Claghorn of New York, N.Y. who was issued a patent in 1885 for a “safety-belt for tourists, painters, or firemen who are being raised or lowered.” Claghorn’s belt was not tested in cars until the 1920s.
In 1935 DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981), publisher of Reader’s Digest, commissioned writer Joseph C. Furnas (1905-2001) to prepare an article about auto accidents. Furnas’ article, “—And Sudden Death!”, was the most reprinted article in Digest history and certainly brought to light the topic of car safety. As it happened, Furnas relied on experts who agreed that the interiors of cars were dangerous, but felt that passengers were actually safer being thrown out of the car in an accident rather than being belted into a seat.
Next Crusaders: Medical Doctors
Dr. Claire Straith (1891-1958), a plastic surgeon in Michigan, was so upset by the types of injuries he saw on patients arriving at his clinic that he began visiting crash sites and photographing what seemed to cause the injuries.
Straith became adamant that car dashboards, then made of metal with sharp angled edges, were dangerous. He also pointed out that the mounted control knobs sticking out from the dashboard were unsafe. Unbelted passengers in both the front and the back seats were at risk for cascading forward in an accident and being hurt by something sharp. The steering wheel shaft was also an issue, placing the driver at high risk of being impaled.
Dr. Straith started an organization called the Automobile Safety League of America. Straith urged for padded dashboards and flush mounts for the controls in the dashboard. He experimented with lap belts and also patented a dashboard crash pad. (He shared what he could make with friends and co-workers who wanted them.)
For the first few years of his safety campaign, he did not get much attention. Perhaps as a result of the Reader’s Digest article that was published in 1935, Straith finally got a meeting with Walter Chrysler. In 1937 Walter Chrysler saw that the Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, and Imperial cars featured recessed knobs, rubber buttons, padded seat tops, and gently curved door handles. This was the first time an auto manufacturer promoted designs for safety instead of styling.
Another Doctor Stands Up for Safety
In 1946 Dr. C. Hunter Shelden opened a neurological practice at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Like Straith, he became concerned about the injuries he was seeing, and in November 1955, the Journal of the American Medical Association printed an article by Dr. Shelden suggesting retractable seat belts, recessed steering wheels, reinforced car roofs, roll bars, door locks, and elevated head rests to protect against whip lash. Shelden was also a very early proponent of the air bag.
Safety Wasn’t Selling
The industry began to look at safety options, and in 1956 Ford offered to pad the dashboard and install seat belts in their cars for any consumer willing to pay an additional $27. Few took the option; only 2 percent of Ford buyers spent extra for safety.
As the number of cars on the roads increased, Congress agreed to hold hearings on car safety in 1960. Manufacturers testified about their experiences. Some of the items under discussion at this time included things we take for granted today: good brake systems, defrosting systems for front and back windows, and windshield wipers that are effective.
Seat belts were also discussed. American Motors noted they were installing brackets in the 1960 car models and dealers could then use these brackets to attach belts for those who wanted them. Other manufacturers were making indentations in the floorboards with a similar plan in mind. However Chrysler dealers claimed that less than 1 percent of customers asked for seat belts. (One might guess that since dealers had to commit to extra work to install the belts, the dealers may not have pressed consumers on why belts might be a good idea.)
Ralph Nader’s Well-Deserved Claim to Fame
Ultimate pressure on Congress and car manufacturers had to come from the court of public opinion, and guiding that opinion was Ralph Nader, a 32-year-old attorney who had written
about car safety as early as 1959 while still a student at Harvard. The 1965 publication of his book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, created waves throughout the country. The book became a bestseller and prompted the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which created the National Highway Safety Bureau. This marked a historic shift in responsibility for automobile safety from the consumer to the government.
But ultimately, consumer compliance is vital to anything from seat belt effectiveness to ending distracted driving, and the first law requiring consumer compliance was not an American one. It was a regional law passed in 1970 in Australia. Not until 1984 did the U.S. have any legislation at all about seat belt use. New York was the first state to pass such a law, and that did not occur until 1984.
Since this time, automobiles have become far better at protecting their occupants when crashes occur. And while the statistics for the first quarter of 2012 were higher that statistics from a year earlier, overall the trend in auto accident fatalities has been spiraling downward. The statistics for fatalities in 2009 and 2010 were low enough to rival 1949, with 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, down from the 1.13 fatality rate for 2009.
Clearly, lone crusaders make a difference. It just takes time.