Dec 6, 2010

My Grandfather and the History of Seat Belts in Victoria

Today is my grandfather's 90th birthday.
He's my only surviving grandparent and this is not surprising - he is a big, tall man and has always been as strong as an ox.
At 49 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and had three-quarters of a lung removed. He and my grandmother moved from Melbourne to the Central Coast of New South Wales for its milder, wamer climate, after his operation.
In those days there was just the operation - no radiation, no chemotherapy, nothing else. I have no idea what the cancer survival rate was like for this type of operation back then, but no doubt my grandfather was lucky to stick around.

Today my father and aunt and my mother hosted a birthday for my grandfather. Though the family is small, five generations were there - the only time since my grandparents' 60th anniversary that all the family had got together and the first time my daughters had met some of their family.

My father made a speech which praised Pop's skill on the golf course - three hole in ones - and his feats in business. Pop worked most of his career for an Australian car part company which used to be a big manufacturer and these days is a chain of retail outlets. In the 1960s and 70s Pop was in large part personally responsible for getting seat belts made mandatory in cars in Victoria (and by extension, later Australia). Recognising the need to get seat belts backed by legislation to make them profitable, Pop got his company together with the other two companies that manufactured car parts in Australia at the time, and suggested they pool resources to get legislation happening. Through a canny mix of government lobbying, advertising and public relations campaigns he and his colleagues created something which has become a natural part of driving in this country, and which has also saved many lives.

We all joke with Pop as we know, and he readily admits, that the seat belt campaign was a business strategy to secure a market and make money. But, as he campaigned and lobbied and demonstrated the effectiveness of seatbelts, and as he worked with the manufacturers to improve the technology, safety and comfort of the belts over time, it also became something he believed in very passionately, and he spent a good part of his ensuing career continuing this work and advocating for the safety and necessity of seat belts.

He has some good stories to tell. He had a couple of colleagues who demonstrated the selt belts' effectiveness at trade shows by being human crash test dummies, driving a car into a barrier then jumping out and exclaiming something like "I'm fine! Thanks to my seat belt!" At one show the guy limped out moaning "I think I've broken a rib" and Pop said "well keep quiet about it for god's sake!" and got him to wave to the crowd. Aah, the good old days...

It was interesting to hear about the science that went into the development and improvement of seat belts.
I know that sentence could sound strange when read alone - but as my mother taught me, everything is interesting when you look into it.

In the beginning the seat belts were lap sashes only, and made of nylon.
Very quickly it was found that another strap was needed, as test dummies and real people were still hitting their heads when strapped in at the waist. The strap diagonally across the chest was added as a compromise between safety, cost and convenience - in those days they were not yet mandatory and so had to be saleable, which meant they had to be comfortable and able to be put on with the minimum of effort.  Tests had shown that the double harness seatbelt (similar to what goes over your head and chest on a roller coaster) was the safest seat belt possible - but it was too expensive to produce and off-putting to consumers, who at that time wanted to just get in their automobiles and enjoy a drive as a carefree and stylish experience.

In the 1960's cars were still not designed to take seat belts, so belts had to be designed to be fitted to the cars. Thus the major challenge then was to design belts that were safe but also comfortable. With the addition of the diagonal strap across the chest, because of the way the belts had to be attached to the cars, the new strap tended to dig into the throat - so the challenge was on to design something more comfortable. It was also recognised that cars had to be designed to incorporate the seat belts, for real advances to be made.

Seat belts were invented in the US in the 1880's, but Volvo introduced the modern seat belt in 1959. Extensive research and development went into seat belts, using people and technology from aerospace engineering. Pop told us how the buckles were designed with the press-release technology using just the right amount of give, as it was found that the most that a human being could comfortably press with one finger was 37 pounds pressure. He told us how the straps had to be designed to withstand 400 pounds of pressure which is what is brought to bear by a human body in a crash.

The improvements continued. The nylon was found to deteriorate over time from exposure to sunlight, so other materials were tested and tetralene was adopted, eventually replaced by the polyester or polypropylene used today.

As Pop's company was heavily involved in the development of seat belts in Australia, they had access to overseas developments but as a manufacturer they also did their own research and development, and made continuous improvements to the belts to get a workable balance between safety and marketability. After seat belts were made mandatory in Victoria in 1970, they continued to improve the belts in response to consumer and vehicle manufacturer experience, to improve safety and cost, and to convince the rest of the country on their necessity.

Pop travelled to Detroit for trade shows (as my brother-in-law observed today, imagine the excitement and beauty of all the new cars in Detroit in the late 1960s!). In Australia he appeared on a television talk show where the host argued against the mandatory adoption of seat belts, using an anecdote about a friend of his who had run off the road and was thrown from his car before it crashed - which would not have happened had he been wearing a seat belt. Pop responded, "If you want to design an accident, we can design a seat belt to suit it."
Another argument often made was that seat belts were inconvenient or uncomfortable; people asked, "Do you have to wear it all the time?" Pop's response was: "You don't have to wear it all the time. You just have to be wearing it a few seconds before you crash."

Funny how things bring back memories. When I was a child in the 1970s there was still some occasional argument about seat belts, and in 1979 when we moved to the States (where belts were not mandatory but the conversation was taking place), the same arguments came up - the belts were uncomfortable and inconvenient, and in some accidents you would be safer without one. (In the US there was an additional argument that we didn't have in Australia: making seat belts [or anything] mandatory was an infringement on freedom of choice).

Those arguments belong mostly to history now. It is an accepted notion that seat belts save lives and must be worn while driving. Victoria was the first jurisdiction in the world to make the wearing of seat belts in cars mandatory. Other states and countries followed as the safety benefits became clear, and the wearing of selt belts is now mandatory in most industrialised countries.

And my Pop did that!

From Wikipedia, courtesy of

"In Victoria, Australia the use of seat belts became compulsory in 1970. By 1974 decreases of 37% in deaths and 41% in injuries, including a decrease of 27% in spinal injuries, were observed, compared with extrapolations based on pre-law trends.
...By 2009, despite large increases in population and the number of vehicles, road deaths in Victoria had fallen below 300, less than a third of the 1970 level, the lowest since records were kept, and far below the per capita rate in jurisdictions such as the United States. This reduction was generally attributed to aggressive road safety campaigns beginning with the seat belt laws."




  1. Yay for him!
    Aren't you glad that your Pop (and mine, who was a teacher then a principal) wasn't responsible for cigarette marketing or the introduction of pokie machines...??!!

  2. How cool is that! One of my pops was the local rake and butcher, the other the postmaster. What a story. p.s. your cat is fine.

  3. Kath: Ha ha, good point! My pop could have easily gone that way! He has had an interesting life though, for sure. Was actually a member of the Communist Party in his twenties which surprised all of us when we found out as he is the most capital L Liberal you can imagine.

    Pandora: don't you love the amazing stories these guys have - so interesting how much has changed in just a few decades. Re cat: never doubted it for a minute, I know she's in heaven.



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