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Today, 35,000 people are killed each year in auto accidents in the US, the same number as in 1951. So seat belts, air bags, and safer vehicle design are clearly of no help, right? Wrong. The totals are the same, but the percentages are vastly different. Today, twice as many drivers travel six times as many miles as in 1951.

Seat belts are responsible for some of those saved lives. Where did they come from?

1920. Early seat belts kept airplane pilots in their seats during upside-down maneuvering.

1922. Barney Oldfield, Indy 500 racer, had a safety harness built by a parachute company. No other racer had a seat belt.

1935. Readers Digest published And Sudden Death, an article that told us about how the lack of safety in automotive design was responsible for many unnecessary deaths.

1954. The Sports Car Club of America mandated the use of seat belts for all drivers.

1955. The American Medical Association printed an article by emergency room doctor C.H. Shelden suggesting retractable seat belts, recessed steering wheels, door locks, and elevated head rests would ensure fewer vehicle deaths.

1956. William Noe’s quick release seat belt was a Ford new car option.

1959. Nils Bohlin’s combination shoulder/lap belt became standard equipment on Volvos.

1965. Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. Among other things, it chronicled Detroit’s resistance to adding automotive safety features. The book became a bestseller and prompted the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.

1968. Three-point safety belts are required by law in U.S. cars. Most people find them annoying and cling to the often-disproven belief that it is better to be thrown from a car in an accident than to be belted in.

1974. The US government mandated seatbelt interlocks that prevented starting the car unless they were latched.

1981. CDC statistics showed nine out of ten people in cars did not use their seat belts, in spite of interlocks. Many people clicked the belts, then sat on them.

1984. New York was the first state to enact seat belt laws. Maine was the last in 1995. New Hampshire has none.

Of course seat belts save lives, we say now, with perfect hindsight.

What took us so long?

  • We listened to “experts” who were wrong.
  • We favored assumptions over facts.
  • We ignored hard evidence.

When your competitors are locked in the past with their ill-formed opinions, you can better see the future when you have facts.

Footnote: The author’s father took his new car to Sears to have seat belts installed in 1954.
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