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The History of the Seatbelt in American Cars

Maybe it’s the increasing weight gain in many Americans–but people still try to get away without buckling up their seat belt when driving. And when you see the legal demands on billboards in many states of “Buckle Up–It’s the Law!”, it only emphasizes the desire to want to skirt the law, especially if the person feels as if they’re in a straight jacket wearing a seat belt in their compact car. Well, people of all sizes may not love buckling up their seat belt–but it should be a force of habit by now. As of this writing, 25 U.S. states have made not wearing a seat belt a primary offense. 24 other states have it as a secondary offense…that belies its stiff penalty fee by use of the word “secondary.”

Only New Hampshire has decided to go with the past and not worry about America’s snowballing seat belt laws. Don’t be surprised to see those disgusted with their laws soon flooding the limited-space roads of New Hampshire looking for real estate.

Well, those people probably have no clue that there’s a long history of the American public having nary a thought about seat belts or why they’d be necessary in a car. The first time the world heard about seat belts was in airplanes and their use with stunt pilots who’d fly upside-down often. When automobiles became common place on American streets right before and after WWI–traffic chaos was pretty much the name of the game anyway when it came to riding through a city or town. It always amazes me that we don’t see photographs from 1918 showing early automobiles and horse buggies running into one another en masse along a busy street corner. Undoubtedly some did–and how people survived such an impact depended on how well-padded the interior of the automobile was. Unfortunately, none of them made then had such a thing–with mostly sharp interior edges that could instantly kill someone if colliding with something at a moderate speed.

The ultimate irony is that a plastic surgeon in the 1920’s was the first one to speak out against all the sharp edges of a car’s dashboard and how it could cause serious injury of the face or head if the driver and passenger couldn’t be protected somehow. While you’d think the airbag would have had its eureka moment then–something as simple as a belt tied around the driver and passenger seemed more feasible then to make the production of cars easier and cheaper. That astute plastic surgeon happened to be Claire Straith (yes, a man) who eventually started the Straith Clinic in Michigan–becoming one of the earliest clinics in America to do complicated plastic surgery.

How un-American for a plastic surgeon to speak out for driving safety so he’d lose business.

Yes, place all blame on Straith for getting the ball rolling on cars installing seat belts in ensuing decades. Before that, though, Straith managed to advocate getting padding on the interior of cars so someone hitting their head on jagged edges around the dashboard wouldn’t be killed or end up siphoning their life savings getting reconstructive surgery in Straith’s clinic. But no matter how prestigious Straith’s reputation was–his attempt to get the American people to pay more attention to car safety fell on deaf ears. He even started an organization called the Automobile Safety League of America with a fellow doctor that didn’t seem to get the attention of the masses, despite other surgeons siding with Straith. Because Straith started this campaign in the 1920’s–it was perhaps America’s economic high and Americans not worrying about anything spelling danger that made the progress a little slower.

By the time of the Great Depression when people realized that dangers can potentially be around any corner–Straith managed to at least convince some automobile manufacturers that putting padding material around dashboards and car doors would attract people in feeling safer as they drove. Walter Chrysler and Preston Tucker met with Straith and, after being haunted at the potentials for injury in their older models, Straith’s designs were implemented in their cars around the late 1930’s with slow assimilation into American culture.

Seat belts still had a metaphorical feeling of repression in most American minds. Despite new experiments and designs of the seat belt–it’d be 20 years before a major car manufacturer installed seat belts. And those were just in the front seat. (Much to the chagrin of the poor, poor people getting carsick in the back seat.)

Saab makes it cool to have seat belts…

It always takes a hip-looking car to incite people to accept something that, from first thought, seemed restricting. There isn’t any doubt that the American people from the 1920’s to 1950’s wanted to be able to drive and be free to move around inside their vehicles. And while auto accidents weren’t as prevalent as they are today–superhighways were starting to be constructed in the post-WWII years that enabled cars to drive faster. The thought of a new hybrid sport-family car barreling down a highway with no seat belts probably weighed heavily on the conscience of the auto designers at Saab. In 1958, they decided to install seat belts for the first time in the front seat of their popular GT 750.

Perhaps it took a little longer to convince American families that the hip, young drivers out there driving the new, sporty Saab GT 750 with the seat belts was worth an investment. If they weren’t convinced by 1960–then they were forced into having a car with seat belts in that new decade–because the wild success of that Saab line made front-seat seat belts standard from then on.

Just because we had seat belts, though, didn’t mean we were using them all the time. Even when models finally put seat belts in the back seat for those restless, carsick travelers–leave it up to another country to snowball the idea that wearing a seat belt should be a law in a time when feeling free at the wheel was starting to claim casualties as car speeds were allowed to push the limits.

“God Save the Seat belt” in Australia–and the arguments of safer driving without seat belts…

Maybe the state of Victoria in Australia was afraid of American tourists driving on the wrong side of the road–but they decided that forcing people to fasten their seat belts in cars should be a mandatory law. When they passed this law in 1970, just about every other part of the world still shrugged their shoulders over fastening a safety belt before driving off into the wild blue yonder. In America, it was likely that 9 out of 10 people probably didn’t fasten their seat belt before doing simple driving into their local towns and cities. Maybe it was more apt to happen when going out on the U.S.’s recent superhighways. But even I remember (when an infant in the 1970’s) not always fastening a seat belt when riding along with my family on I-5 or even on the dangerously curvy highway heading to the coast.

The snowball effect was proven to work, though, when other countries in Europe managed to pass mandatory seat belt-wearing laws after Australia proved through annual statistics that wearing seat belts there was saving lives. Oddly, Australia’s direct link of the U.K. couldn’t seem to pass a seat belt-wearing law until 1983. One of the hang-ups in the law there was investigation that seat belts were more of a psychological nuisance in some people. The thought was that when people use seat belts–they’re more apt to do dangerous driving with the assumption the seat belt will save their lives. When they aren’t wearing the seat belt–the natural impulse would be to drive a little more carefully…hence preventing accidents.

Those studies never really had a full investigation–if probably leading to more circuitous arguments in the long run.

In America–it’s a strong possibility the above idea was true and people subconsciously felt free–yet safer–when driving around without a seat belt cutting into their expanding midsection. I even heard arguments in the 1980’s (when suggestions of wearing your seat belt were becoming ubiquitous) that there was a fear people wouldn’t be able to get out of their seat belt in the event they were in an accident and the car was burning. Yes, I usually remarked how ridiculous that thought was, but I didn’t start fastening my own seat belt religiously until the late 80’s or early 90’s after reports of horrifically fatal accidents in my local area (from the driver not wearing a seat belt) were hard to ignore.
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When seat belt-wearing laws started popping up in most American states around 2000–most people seemed to be getting used to buckling up before turning the ignition in their cars. Nevertheless, you still see people jumping into their cars when in a hurry and automatically forgetting to fasten their seat belts, even when most cars warn you to do so. The typically law-defying Hollywood crowd is more apt to be caught on camera doing that–as evidenced recently when Miley Cyrus and her dad, Billy Ray, were caught not wearing a seat belt while driving a car in a TV movie they starred in together.

People will be quick to criticize others who don’t automatically grab their seat belts and fasten it when entering their vehicles. But America and other countries will always have a darker side of themselves that want to defy wearing a seat belt to likely balance our dual psychological desires of taming the dangerous while still wanting to be safe…

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