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History of Seat Belts in the U.S.

History of seatbelts in the United States

History of Seat Belts in the US

The use of seat belts in automobiles did not begin in earnest until the mid to late 1950s. Even then, seat belts were considered optional equipment. In 1955, famous actor James Dean died in a deadly two-vehicle crash in the Southern California desert, which he likely would have survived had he been wearing a seat belt. History was made. The seat belt industry bloomed.

Probably more so than any other incident, the Dean crash launched a new period of public awareness about seat belt utilization in automobiles and their possible advantages.

In 1955, Swedish automaker Volvo was the first manufacturer to offer seat belt systems as standard equipment in its automobiles on a safety-first theme. Volvo backed up its claims with a substantial amount of crash testing it independently performed during the 1950s which provided inescapable proof that the use of a seat belt during an automobile accident would reduce both fatalities and serious injuries.

Video: In 1959 Volvo Engineers discuss the safety enhancements by adding seat belts to vehicles.

Although history shows a heightened public awareness about seat belt safety, in the United States some American automakers wanted to offer seat belts as optional equipment in their vehicle lines, few customers ordered seat belts and they were never made standard equipment in American cars until the mid-1960s.

New Seat belt Regulations

In 1963, recognizing a mounting number casualties on the public roads and highways avoidable through seat belt usage, Congress made history and ordered that minimum federal standards be adopted for safety belts “so that passenger injuries in motor vehicle accidents can be kept to a minimum.” 

(77 Stats. 361) One year later, the U.S. Commerce Department proposed and adopted a variety of regulations governing seat belt adoption, usage and testing which were largely adopted from standards which had previously been issued by the Society of Automotive Engineers (“SAE”) (29 F.R. 12736, 16973).

These new regulations, posted at 15 C.F.R.. § 7, et seq. set forth a host of minimum requirements for manufacturers to follow governing the strengths and tolerances of seat belts, buckles, retractors and other restraint system components. 

In 1966, Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which formally established Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”) providing minimum legally acceptable requirements for the manufacturing of vehicular components, including seat belts and seat belt buckles. This legislation also made the installation of seat belts mandatory by U.S. automakers.

Creating the Shoulder Belt System

Creating the Shoulder Belt System

In the late 1960s, heightened public safety concerns over the potential for a lap belt alone to produce severe lower extremity and abdominal injuries during a car accident (although perhaps preventing fatal injuries) prompted more regulatory changes to require the use of lap and shoulder belt systems. 

These integrated restraints are theoretically designed to distribute the accident-retraining forces of the belt system along the body rather than focusing them solely along the pelvis, raising the potential for abdominal injuries caused by the lap belt alone.

In the late 1970s, to compel a higher degree of public use of seat belt systems, the Federal Government required automakers to install automatic restraint systems, which involved the use of shoulder harnesses on rails and slots which would automatically slide into place when the occupant started the vehicle. 

However, these mechanically complicated systems were prone to substantial problems. They involved a manually-attached lap belt which many users failed to employ under the mistaken belief that they were automatically and fully restrained.

When these occupants were involved in accidents in which their automatic shoulder harness alone was in place, they were subjected to more severe injuries than they likely would have suffered had they been wearing only a lap belt. 

As a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) enacted regulations requiring placards to be placed on the automatic shoulder harness systems warning that they are not to be used without the lap belt. Due to these problems, U.S. automaker manufacturers were permitted to discontinue manufacturing these automatic shoulder restraint systems.

Airbags

During the mid-1980s, while the automatic restraint systems were being troubleshot in production, crash research led to the conclusion that an inflatable airbag (often referred to as the SRS – supplemental, restraint system) could supplement vehicle occupant protection in an accident is used as a supplement to seat belts and shoulder harnesses.

The inclusion of these systems in new vehicles began to become mandatory in certain passenger vehicles in the early 1990s and is being gradually phased in into other types of vehicles. Airbags, of course, also pose their own risks. 

Recent concern has arisen over the potential for airbags, during deployment, to cause severe life-threatening injuries to certain occupants, such as small children and frail adults, during sudden airbag inflation. Nonetheless, airbags have significantly reduced the number of fatal and severe auto injuries in vehicular accidents, particularly in highway accidents involving more incredible speeds.

Seat Belt Buckle Evolution

The object of a seat belt buckle is to bring two ends of the seat belt together in a junction which will keep the two ends of the belt securely fastened to one another, particularly during the sudden and severe loads imposed during an accident – yet be easy for the occupant to fasten and unfasten in entering and exiting the vehicle.

The first seat belt to be mass-produced for this purpose in American vehicles in the 1950s and early 1960s closely resembled the type of widely-recognized seat belt buckle still in use on Airliners today, called a “lift-cover” buckle. 

The restraint system would have a male tongue at one end with a hole or aperture inserted into the female buckle, where a spring-loaded latch pin (called a pawl) would pass into the pawl hold the tongue firmly into the buckle. 

The pin would be extracted when the user lifted up the hinged, spring-loaded buckle cover, releasing the pawl from the aperture in the tongue, allowing the tongue and buckle again to separate.

Concern arose soon after the installation of these buckles that the lift cover might unintentionally dislodge by the occupant’s motions inside the car, leaving the user unrestrained in an accident.

In 1965, General Motors Corporation employee Robert C. Fisher designed a buckle that operated similarly to the lift-cover buckle but substituted a protected button on the side of the buckle for the lift-cover. This was the first major “side-release” or “top-release” style buckle used on American vehicles. 

The spring-loaded button would cause the pawl to span into the aperture when the tongue was fully inserted all of the ways into the buckle. When the occupant wanted to disengage the tongue and buckle, (s)he would press the button and push the pawl out of the tongue’s aperture, permitting separation of the tongue and buckle. 

The first of Fisher’s designs was patented in 1965 and was called the RCF-65 (“RCF” standing for Robert C. Fisher) or “Maxi-Buckle.”

In 1967, Fisher patented a smaller side-release buckle that operated identically to the RCF-65, which differed from the “Maxi-Buckle” only regarding its miniaturization. This buckle became known as the “RCF-67” side-release buckle (also known as the Type I buckle in General Motors Vehicles). It remains the most numerous buckle installed in American vehicles to date. 

At the time of its initial conception, the RCF-67 was lightweight, simple in design, easy to manufacture, had few moving parts, was reasonably durable, and therefore was relatively inexpensive to manufacture. It became immediately popular with American automakers whom the government involuntarily compelled to make seat belts mandatory equipment in US cars beginning in 1968.

In the early 1980s, the American automakers and their buckle suppliers began a campaign to develop a set belt buckle with a tongue eject feature and a release push button on the end of the buckle, rather than on the side or top.

The initial generation of these tongue-eject feature buckles were side-release buckles. The first of these tongue-eject buckles used in production was manufactured by Hamill, a Division of Firestone (now TRW Vehicle Safety Systems). 

It was used as early as 1973 and 1974 Ford vehicles. Called a “diecast” buckle, it looked remarkably similar to the RCF-67 but was made by Hamill under a Swiss patent which announced as its sole purpose prevention of the danger of “false latching.” This is discussed in further detail below. After two years, Ford went back to the RCF-67 solely to save money on the production costs of the buckle.

However, in the early 1980s, Ford and General Motors once again directed their buckle suppliers to develop a new end-release buckle with a tongue eject feature. In the late 1980s, the Ford Taurus and Lincoln Sable utilized side-release buckles with tongue eject features, as did the Ford Probe. 

At the same time, TRW VSSI (which had purchased Hammill from Firestone several years earlier) developed a buckle with a German Company called REPA, which was the first of the significant “end-release” tongue-eject feature buckles ultimately to be developed for use in the United States.

The REPA end-release buckle had the release button placed on the end of the buckle (next to the insertion point of the tongue), instead of on the top or side of the buckle. The tongue-eject feature prevented false latching, while locating the release button on the end of the buckle prevented a side-load from inadvertently causing the release button to be activated, thus preventing inertial unlatching, as discussed below.

TRW VSSI and Allied Signal developed end-release buckles for Ford and GM vehicles in the late 1980s. Today, the end-release buckles are the predominant buckle sold in the United States, and the number of new vehicles equipped with RCF-67 buckles continues to diminish.

The following video explains how you can ensure that your seatbelts for you and your passengers are properly functioning:

Outdated Buckle Technology are Resulting in Safety Defects

Despite numerous advances in passive restraint systems over the past two decades, surprisingly, the FMVSS and industry standards governing the manufacture of seat belts and buckles have essentially remained the same to date. 

Additionally, American automakers haven’t made much of an effort to improve the seat belt buckle designs that were in use at the time. The government’s watchdog agency, NHTSA, has not only done little to improve these designs but has actively resisted proposed changes that would make these buckles safer. 

Meanwhile, advanced technologies that would dramatically improve these buckle systems’ safety have been largely ignored.

As a result, despite the recent trend toward equipping all passenger vehicles sold in the United States with end-release buckles, there are still billions of RCF-67/Type I buckles in U.S. vehicles still on the road today. 

As explained in the above section, these buckles represent an outdated buckle-latching technology designed in the 1960s and continue to possess severe seat belt defects of which most Americans are largely unaware (e.g., false and inertial unlatching), until a serious accident occurs.

As a direct consequence, over the past twenty-five years, thousands of Americans who made a conscious effort to put their seat belts on have been killed or seriously injured during auto accidents when their seat belt buckles have become suddenly unlatched. 

More disturbingly, evidence obtained by attorneys representing these injured persons reveals that the auto industry has been well aware of these buckle unlatching-related casualties and has suppressed them from the public and the U.S. government to avoid the massive expense of forced recalls and to save money on the manufacturing costs of their vehicles. These buckle unlatching defects generally fall into two categories: false latching and inertial unlatching.

Seat Belt Failure Help: If you have had an issue with an unsafe seat belt, locking mechanism, or safety issue with a car’s seat belt feature, contact our auto recall and defective parts attorneys for a free case review. You may be entitled to compensation for your injury caused by a faulty seat belt.

Dangerous Defective Seatbelts

A defective seatbelt can be extremely dangerous in a car accident. It can increase the risk of serious injuries or even death.

The most common dangers of a defective seatbelt:

  • Ejection from the vehicle
  • Head injuries
  • Chest and abdominal injuries
  • Neck and spinal cord injuries

Signs of a defective seatbelt:

  • The seatbelt is frayed or torn.
  • The seatbelt buckle is loose or broken.
  • The seatbelt does not retract properly.
  • The seatbelt is difficult to fasten or unfasten.
  • The seatbelt makes a strange noise when you buckle it or unbuckle it.

If you notice any of these signs, it is important to have your seatbelt inspected by a qualified mechanic and contact the manufacture immediately. Contact our office for a free case evaluation if you’ve been injured because of a defective seatbelt. Our defective seatbelt lawyers have decades of experience taking on auto defect cases.

Case Results

  • 1

    $117,500,000

    Consumer Class Action

  • 2

    $38,650,000

    Motor Vehicle Accident

  • 3

    $32,698,073

    Auto Defect – Seat Manufacturers, Johnson Controls

  • 4

    $30,000,000

    Motorcycle Accident

  • 5

    $24,744,764

    Defective Seatback

  • 6

    $16,444,904

    Bicycle Accident

Client Reviews

Bisnar Chase Review - Natalie

I’m so impressed with this law firm. I lost my mother because of a seat defect when she was rear-ended in an auto accident and Bisnar Chase stepped up and took our case. The staff is wonderful and Brian Chase took his time explaining everything via phone with me. I’m honored to have the best of the best working on our family’s behalf, trying to get justice for my Mom, because of a negligent car company still manufacturing faulty seats. I look forward to working with this firm and am hopeful for a positive outcome. Thank you so much, Brian Chase. I know you will work your hardest on this case. God Bless you.

Natalie C.
Bisnar Chase Google Review

Great people in this office, everyone was really helpful explaining everything. I was referred by my aunt for my car accident in October and the case went pretty fast. No problems and very professional. I was kept in the loop thru the whole process and was able to get a better settlement than my insurance company said I would. I can’t really compare them to other law firms because it was the first time I had to use an attorney, but my bad experience with the car accident was handled as well as I could have hoped.

P. Montgomery
Bisnar Chase Reviews

Bisnar Chase has been amazing with me through my lawsuit. I felt real compassion for my case and I was given their very best to make sure I was well taken care of. In addition to the great service given during my case, Bisnar Chase helped me get my son to his invited USA Football Team camp in Texas. They immediately offered to help fund the trip and are so supportive of his journey. I felt Kristi is just as excited for him as I am with this opportunity. Kristi has been an absolute delight to talk with. Bisnar Chase is more than I ever expected I could get in an attorney. I would recommend them to anyone!

Christina Del Real
Bisnar Chase Google Review

Bisnar Chase is a model #veteranowned business that is purpose-driven — showing the power of patriotism in action! Because of Bisnar Chase, low-income veterans will be able to forge new futures at home through pro bono legal care. Team Veterans Legal Institute is grateful to have Bisnar Chase as a sponsor for Lawyers for Warriors — supporting the promise to be there for our veterans when they need it most.

KellyAnn Romanych

Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys, LLP

1301 Dove St. STE 120, Newport Beach, CA 92660

800-561-4887

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