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How Volvo’s Seatbelt Saved Lives – and Secured a Brand
These days, seat belts aren’t exactly a selling feature.
But the seatbelt found in every modern car today wasn’t always the triangle shape we’ve come to know.
Seatbelts used to be a single strap across the waist. That did little to protect the head and torso during collisions.
In 1959, Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin came up with a better way.
His three-point seatbelt invention vastly elevated safety by solving two problems at once: It was effective at preventing injuries and simple enough to encourage drivers to use it when driving.
“It was a matter of finding a simple solution,” Bohlin said. “It does not matter how effective a restraint is if it’s not used.”
That in itself is a lesson in design and usability.
That initial design was so successful, it’s been largely unchanged over the last 60-plus years, even while dozens of other high-tech safety features have been added to modern vehicles.
A Not-so-Secret Trade Secret
With such an effective, simple and inexpensive safety device, it’s only natural Volvo would patent the design and use it as a competitive edge to sell more vehicles, right?
Volvo took the opposite approach. It left the patent open, allowing all manufacturers to use the design in their cars.
The rest is history. Nearly every vehicle on the market today utilizes Bohlin’s three-point seat belt design.
Volvo’s seatbelt design is credited with saving over 1 million lives.
But that doesn’t mean Volvo didn’t benefit from the innovation. While a patent on the seatbelts surely would have helped lift sales over the next several years, Volvo had the long-term vision to create a story and reputation that would last decades.
The company went on to build its brand around safety. To this day, it is credited with dramatically improving driver safety, and its vehicles are consistently ranked among some of the safest by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.