The Somewhat Surprising History of Seat Belts in the U.S.

Did you know that seat belts weren’t always in cars? If you grew up in the 80s or later, you probably only remember a world where seat belts were required, and your parents made you wear them.

You might be surprised to learn that cars were invented before the seat belt, and for the first 60 or 70 years that vehicles were mass-produced, their occupants were unrestrained.

We’ll look at the recent history of seat belts and the consequences of not wearing one. And we’ll answer the question people always ask, “Will a seat belt ticket raise my insurance?

history of seat belts in the u.s.

The Development of Seat Belts

Early seat belts weren’t the same as the ones vehicle occupants use today. Like most things, they’ve evolved to become better and safer over the years. The first seat belt is credited to George Caley, who, in the mid-1800s, used it to secure himself in his glider.

Another early user of a restraint system was a pilot named Benjamin Foulois, who used a lap belt in the early 1900s to keep him able to control his instrument panel when flying in turbulent conditions.

The First Seat Belt in a Motor Vehicle

It wasn’t until 1949 that the Nash Motor Company took the first step and installed seat belts in 40,000 vehicles that seat belts became an option for everyday Americans. Yet, surprisingly, most purchasers of those original 40,000 cars with seat belts requested their dealers to remove them, and hardly anyone used them.

If you purchased a 1948 Ford Woody Wagon, it certainly wouldn’t have an option for seat belts, but by 1955, Henry Ford decided to offer the option in new Fords. However, this was met with similar public disinterest, and only 2% of new car purchasers chose the seat belt option.

Types of Seat Belts

Originally, seat belts had two points of contact with the vehicle and crossed the occupants’ lap. Most people are familiar with the term “lap belt,” and that’s as technologically advanced as they were in the beginning. They just crossed the laps.

Three-point belts have a shoulder strap and a lap belt. Volvo introduced them in their vehicles in 1959, and they’ve become the standard restraint system in cars today.

How a Seat Belt Works

Did you realize there’s more involved than just the visible part of the seat belt? The hidden mechanical part of a seat belt locks the belt during a crash. That’s how the belt keeps you from succumbing to Newton’s First Law of Motion, which states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

In the case of a vehicle crash, the seat belt is the external force that keeps you from ejecting from the vehicle.

When airbags were first invented, people hoped they would eliminate the need for seat belts. But, as it turned out, airbags aren’t effective at preventing injury or death unless the occupants also wear seat belts. The seat belt keeps people in the proper position for airbags to cushion effectively.

Legal Evolution of Seat Belts

As mentioned earlier, seat belts were not very popular when they were first invented. However, even though the general public disliked them, starting in 1968, all new vehicles were required to have seat belts installed.

State-by-state adoption of seat belt requirements started in 1984 with New York and concluded with the last state to make them mandatory, Maine, at the end of 1995. New Hampshire is the only state where adults are not required to wear seat belts, and unsurprisingly, usage is lower in New Hampshire than in any other state.

Seat belt fines range from $10 to $130, depending on which state you’re caught not wearing one.

Seat Belts and Car Insurance

Some states have a primary seat belt law, which means you can get pulled over for no other reason than not wearing one. Other states have secondary laws, so you can’t get pulled over only for a seat belt infraction. But if you’re pulled over for something else, you can get a ticket for not wearing one.

To answer the question, “Will a seat belt ticket increase my insurance?” It won’t — at least, not usually.

Seat belt tickets aren’t moving violations, so they won’t impact your insurance most of the time. Likewise, parking violations are similar in that they’re not moving violations. So while you still have to pay the penalty, you won’t face increased car insurance rates.

If you live in a state where seat belt violations are moving violations, you could see a slight increase in your insurance rates following a ticket. Still, the increase will be minimal and likely at most $5 per month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that seat belts reduce the risk of death or injury by 50%. It’s the law to wear them, but it’s also a good safety move. Your life is valuable, and a simple seat belt click is worth any perceived inconvenience.

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Melanie Musson writes and researches for the car insurance site, CarInsuranceComparison.com. She’s passionate about vehicle and driver safety and strives to educate others about ways to keep themselves safe while driving.

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