The first seatbelts I remember were in dad’s 1961 Buick LeSabre. He installed two sets of lap belts for the front bench seat. They were dull red nylon web fabric and fastened by means of threading one end through a friction type buckle to the proper snugness, then the buckle was squeezed shut to secure the adjustment.
Dad purchased the belts from an aviation supply company in order to save money. At the time, General Motors only offered safety belts as an extra cost accessory option. They had a higher price than the airplane seatbelts he installed. I once asked why he had not put safety belts in the back seat. He answered that the back seat is safer. He also had no answer why the center passenger position in the front seat had no seat belts.
Aside from the family car having two sets of airplane lap belts, our family was one of the few who used safety belts at all. Most people preferred not to use them. They either stuffed the belts between the cushions to hide them or had them removed from their vehicles.
In fact, dad later obtained a full set of seatbelts that a service station mechanic had removed from a Pontiac; then had them installed in the Buick. The set cost nothing because the mechanic had planned on tossing them into the dumpster. After the new safety belts were installed, dad instructed us on how to use them and lectured us why they must be used.
By the time my first car was manufactured, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had been formed. The 1967 Camaro was equipped with a safety steering column, padded dashboard, and featured lap belts at all passenger positions. All of these were standard equipment.
Because I understood the importance of seatbelts, I made sure my friends buckled up whenever they rode in my car. Sometimes they protested because seatbelt use was still very unpopular at that time. However, I didn’t put the car in gear until everyone was buckled in.
The seatbelts proved their usefulness in 1971, during a vacation trip I took with my brother. We were driving down a stretch of newly paved black asphalt highway on a rainy night. The visibility was almost non-existent. Suddenly the left front tire hit a long ridge of raw asphalt that had not been integrated into the highway. The car did a “three-sixty” and went briefly out of control. I was able to regain control and steer the car to safety because I remained seated behind the wheel. It was the safety belt that kept me in place. The Camaro sustained only a bent driveshaft and a couple of minor paint scratches.
I have not “needed” a seatbelt since that night in 1971, but I’ve never pressed my luck. Regardless of the law, seatbelt use has always been mandatory for everybody riding in my cars.
By the time my second car was built, three point seatbelts were required equipment for front seat positions. This design had actually been patented many years earlier, in 1958, by Nils Bohlin for Sweden’s Volvo cars. It was provided as standard equipment in their cars the following year. By the time three point belts were mandated in the US, they featured pretensioners and tension clamps plus improved buckle design.
One of the worst ideas was the motorized automatic shoulder belt for driver and front seat passenger. The lap belt still needed to be fastened manually, so if that step was neglected, any protection by the shoulder strap was negated. The motor malfunctioned in some cars, leaving the occupants either unprotected or even trapped. Plus, some cars used a door mounted strap which was a nuisance when entering and leaving the car. Thankfully, the automatic seatbelts were phased out.
The biggest problem with safety belts, is that there remains a small portion of the population who refuses to wear them. For some reason, they do not understand the benefits of buckling up. Everything from insurance discounts to state laws have been tried, yet serious injuries and fatalities still occur to unbelted motor vehicle occupants. No matter how many times people are shown basic physics demonstrations and appeals to emotion, they seem resistant to seat belt use.
The best way to get the full value and safety from your vehicle is to buckle up each and every time you drive or ride. This is one of the best habits you can cultivate.