Half a century ago, the U.S. Congress made a decision to adopt federal standards to reduce the number of motor vehicle casualties. Their beacon in this fight was a piece of simple, but effective equipment that would help protect motorists on the highways and byways of the country — the seat belt.
Although invented in 1959 by Nils Bohlin, Swedish automaker Volvo's first chief safety engineer, the three-point lap belt did not gain notice from the Congress until four years later. Half a decade later, in 1964, it was required on all new American vehicles.
Since being introduced as standard equipment in the 1963 Studebaker, the seat belt has saved more than a million lives, and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it continues to save approximately 11,000 more lives each year. According to data derived from the 2013 and 2012 Automotive Fleet accident management surveys, the percentage of drivers wearing seat belts during an incident has decreased slightly in the past year, from 97.7 to 97.1 percent, which still surpasses the national average of 86 percent by more than 10 percentage points.
"In 2012, the use of seat belts in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 12,174 lives," stated a NHTSA spokesperson. "Seat belts have saved nearly 63,000 lives during the five-year period from 2008 to 2012."
Seat belt safety can be justified in dollars as well. According to NHTSA, the average cost of an accident is $24,500. Most fleets see approximately 20 percent of their fleet vehicles involved in accidents. Taking those figures and applying them to fleets with 100, 1,000 or more vehicles, and the costs can reach at least $500,000 a year.
Currently, 33 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands all have primary seat belt laws for front seat passengers. Violations can result in something as small as a $15 fine in Alaska to more than $150 in California, all for failing to remember to simply click a seat belt in place before pulling onto the road.
Certain high-visibility enforcement programs, such as the "Click It or Ticket" campaign, have helped increase the national belt usage rate from 58 percent in 1994 to an observed usage rate of 84 percent in 2011, according to NHTSA figures. Started two decades ago by North Carolina Governor's Highway Safety Program, the "Click It or Ticket" campaign has gone national, with every state turning the two weeks around Memorial Day into a enforcement program that garners approximately 12,000 and 24,000 seat belt usage tickets per state.
As with most automotive technologies, the OEMs haven't been sitting on their laurels. Technology has evolved with the times. More than one OEM has decided to take the three-point harness and bump up the safety factor to a new level. At Ford, engineers looked at what could be done to enhance existing seat belt technology to make it that much more effective. Their answer came in the form of the Rear Inflatable Belt (RIB), which was first introduced on the 2011 Ford Explorer.
During a crash, the inflatable belt assists by distributing the crash forces across more of the rear passenger's torso, reducing the pressure on the chest and helping to control head and neck motion.
Mercedes-Benz was next to introduce a similar safety design, known as the Beltbag, in 2012. The luxury car manufacturer announced the inclusion of this new technology on the new S-Class in August 2013.
So where do you go from here? How do you improve a piece of equipment that can reduce the risk of being killed or seriously injured in a crash by about 50 percent? Air bags and crash avoidance technology can certainly increase these numbers even more, but it takes compliance to ensure that drivers and occupants walk away from accidents.