When Volvo invented the three-point seat belt in 1959, They made the patent-free for all competitors to use in order to save lives, because “It had more value as a free life-saving tool than something to profit from.’
In this day and age of lane-departure warning systems and radar-guided automatic braking, it’s hard to believe that safety in cars was once considered an afterthought. Volvo made a name for themselves by selling safer cars, but they gave away the most important safety device ever devised: the three-point seat belt.
Website for automobiles in the United Kingdom Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer, invented the universal modern seat belt in 1959, according to Arnold Clark. Seat belts were simple two-point waist restraints at the time, and they often did more harm than good in crashes.
Bohlin worked on ejector seats for Saab as an aviation engineer. He designed a seat belt that covered both the driver’s torso and his or her lap. The Volvo Amazon and Volvo PV544, pictured above, were the first cars to feature the design in the Nordic market in 1959. It arrived in the United States in 1963.
It was a game-changing invention that could have made Volvo a fortune in patent fees alone.
Volvo, on the other hand, didn’t do that; they gave away the patent because it was too valuable to keep to themselves. According to the story:
Volvo opened up the patent so that any car manufacturer could use it in their design, which is why the three-point seatbelt is so widely used. They decided that because the invention was so important, it should be given away for free rather than profited from. “The decision to release the three-point seat belt patent was visionary and in line with Volvo’s guiding principle of safety,” Volvo managing director Alan Dessell is quoted as saying.
Bohlin remained with Volvo until 1985, advocating for additional safety features such as side impact protection and rear seat belts. He died in 2002, just a few years after being inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and receiving a gold medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science. Volvo claimed four years ago that his seatbelt design had saved over a million people around the world.
If you’ve ever been saved by a three-point seat belt, you can thank Bohlin for it, as well as Volvo for prioritising human lives over corporate profits.