How Volvo Inventor Nils Bohlin Made Cars Safer For Everyone

By Jack Ripley | June 4, 2024

Safe, Not Sexy

In a world where automotive safety is often taken for granted, few people know the name Nils Bohlin, the man whose ingenious invention has saved countless lives. As a Volvo engineer in the late 1950s, Bohlin introduced the three-point seatbelt, a simple yet revolutionary design that transformed car safety forever. His commitment to making vehicles safer for everyone transcended corporate interests, as Volvo made the patent open and free for all manufacturers to use. Bohlin's legacy is one of innovation and altruism, a reminder that a single idea can change the world, making every journey a little safer for us all.

test article image
The three-point seat belt in action. Source: Volvo

Safe, not sexy -- that's been the Volvo way. The Swedish car manufacturer can claim a life-saving invention in the three-point seat belt, developed by a Volvo engineer in the '50s and patented. That's right, Volvo actually owns the patent on the seat belt that is standard on every car made today. But the company and the belt's inventor, Nils Bohlin, decided the technology was too important, and gave it away for the rest of the auto industry to use.

Cars have come a long way since their invention in 1886. Back then, they resembled little more than a barber’s chair propped up on four giant bicycle wheels. Today, they are closer to little spaceships than Karl Benz’s original invention. Since then, cars became faster, safer, and a few even learned to drive themselves. However, the most significant leap in automobile safety has changed very little over the past 60 years: the seat belt. The seat belt has saved more lives than yoga, vegetables, and crystals combined. But if not for the altruistic people at Volvo, we all might be living in a much different world.

The Original Seat Belt

test article image
Left: Inventor Nils Bohlen with his seat belt. Right: The seat belt as standard equipment on a Volvo. Source: Volvo

A note for younger readers: the original seat belt offered little more than a strap by which you could strangle your internal organs in the event of an accident. The single strap over the hip area did little to improve safety. The only people who used the original seat belt were race car drivers and regrettably, they found them rather worthless. After Volvo CEO Gunnar Engelau lost a relative in a car accident, he set his engineers to design a seat belt that could actually save lives.