Nils Bohlin
(July 17, 1920 - September 26, 2002)
Born in Harnosand, Sweden
Year of Discovery: 1958

bohlin volvo inventor of seatbeltHis Improved Seatbelt, When Buckled, Saves Lives

When Swedish auto manufacturer Volvo went looking for their first safety engineer they found Nils Bohlin. At the time, Bohlin was working in the aerospace industry, creating ejection seats and other pilot rescue systems. He was the perfect man for the job. At Volvo he set about developing a safer alternative to the existing seatbelt, a single strap that buckled across the stomach. In the course of about one year, Bohlin developed the three-point safety belt. As with many new inventions, acceptance of the new safety system was not automatic. But, following Volvo's lead, the industry gradually adopted the lifesaving safety belt system. Today, the three-point safety belts are mandatory equipment in many countries.

The pilots with whom Bohlin worked at Saab Aircraft Company welcomed safety equipment, regardless of how uncomfortable it was. They understood they were at risk each and every time they flew, and anything that helped them come back in one piece was valuable. But automobile drivers had a distinctly different view. In the late-1950s, when Bohlin joined Volvo, seat belts were not yet mandatory, but were offered as an option. Customers had to pay extra to have seat belts installed. And, more often than not, they chose to spend their extra money on fancy tires instead of uncomfortable restraints. Even when drivers wore seatbelts, they often sustained serious injuries when they were involved in a crash. The seatbelt not only bruised their torso, but did serious damage to their internal organs. It was not until Bohlin's invention of the three-point safety belt that riders had a workable system to protect them.

Bohlin brought his aerospace mind to his automotive task. He understood the dynamics of velocity, force, and impact from his years of working with airplane safety systems. But, he also understood he was no longer working with expert pilots. Part of his challenge lay outside his normal routine of maximizing safety. He now also had to think about more mundane issues like everyday comfort for drivers and their passengers.  He and his team, a diverse group of accident investigation experts, began exploring alternatives. Bohlin applied his knowledge of the deceleration forces experienced by pilots to the issue of automobile restraints. This led him to experiment with a safety belt that would cross the chest, to minimize the force any single body point would experience. He also found that, by anchoring the two belts at a point next to the driver's hip, the driver would be held in position during a crash. And, to top it all off, he developed the safety belt in a way that allowed the driver to buckle it using only one hand. It was a masterpiece of simplicity and safety. Volvo began offering the three-point safety belt in its cars in 1959, and then made it standard front-seat equipment in 1963. Appreciating the lifesaving potential for Bohlin's device, Volvo made the design available to all automakers without charge. The Unites States mandated the three point safety belt mandatory for front-seats in 1968, and Bohlin's ingenious device continues to save tens of thousands of lives worldwide each year.

Written by science writer, Tim Anderson

Lives Saved:  Over 12,000,000 

Bohlin previously worked on ejector seats for fighter planes, which used a 4-point safety harness.
Volvo's CEO Gunnar Engellau, who hired Bohlin, was motivated to improve the seat belt due to a relative having died in a car crash.
The U.S. national rate of seat belt use was 90% in 2020, up from 70% in 2000 (NHTSA Fact).
Roughly half of those killed every year in automobile wrecks were not wearing a seat belt (NHTSA fact).
Air bags are not enough to protect you. In fact they can hurt you if you aren’t wearing a seat belt (NHTSA fact).
Links to More About the Scientist & the Science
MIT Story on Bohlin 
Bohlin's Wikipedia Page