Saving a life can be so simple: grab, stretch, click! A study conducted by the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) confirms that when a vehicle's occupant is wearing a safety belt, their chances of surviving a collision improve by 50 percent. Since its introduction in 1959 by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin, the three-point belt has remained the automobile's most vital safety system. However, even more lives could be saved if belt usage increased.
"What makes the three-point belt unique is that it improves safety for all types of occupants, in all types of accidents, in both the front and rear seats," says Hans Nyth, head of the Safety Centre for Volvo Car Corporation. "One often talks about the protective effect in head-on collisions, but the belt also helps prevent the car's occupants from being thrown out of the car in a rollover, for instance."
It is the safety belt's ability to keep the occupant in the seat that is of crucial importance. The US-based Prevention Institute has found that a massive 75 percent of people thrown out of vehicles in collisions die in the process. In comparison, the ETSC says the safety belt reduces the risk of fatalities and serious injuries from collisions by about 50 percent.
The most effective lifesaver
It is impossible to put an exact figure on the number of lives the three-point belt has saved since the 1960s - there are no globally coordinated traffic-safety statistics - but estimates put the figure at just over a million lives. And Volvo Cars has estimated that many times that number have avoided serious injuries thanks to the safety belt.
In Europe, the safety belt is estimated to reduce road fatalities by 40 percent every year. Within the EU in 2005, an estimated 11,700 drivers survived road collisions because they were wearing safety belts. The figure for Germany alone was 2000. The ETSC believes that if these drivers had not been using the belt, the number of fatalities in Germany that year would have doubled.
Corresponding estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that safety belt use in 2004 saved 15,200 American lives and resulted in society saving $50 billion (US) in associated costs.
Still considerable potential
Safety belt use differs considerably in different parts of the world. In some areas, such as the island of Sakhalin in Russia, safety belt use is as low as 3.8 percent. Highest usage rates are found in countries with high average incomes such as France, Germany, Sweden, Australia and Canada. In these countries, the Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP) has found that between 90 and 99 percent of front-seat passengers and 80-89 percent of rear-seat passengers wear their safety belts.
While the USA has traditionally returned lower figures due to differing legislation, the NHTSA says the country reached a new record in 2008 with an average of 83 percent of front-seat passengers using the safety belt.
In 2004, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders announced there were 620 million vehicles registered throughout the world, of which approximately 270 million are in Europe and another 202 million in the USA. The World Wildlife Foundation believes that, at the end of 2008, this figure is expected to approach 800 million with most of the increase taking place outside Europe and the USA. Backing that up, the World Health Organization says the number of traffic fatalities globally in 2008 is expected to reach an unbelievable 1.2 million people.
"The big problem in many car-intensive countries is that far too many people still choose not to use the safety belt. The belt represents by far the biggest lifesaving potential in modern traffic," adds Nyth.
In the USA, the NHTSA estimates that each percent increase in belt use would save 270 lives a year. GSRP studies in Europe show that another 7,000 lives could be saved if all EU countries had the same belt usage level as the best member countries.
There is therefore still considerable unexploited lifesaving potential in the safety belt in industrialised countries. And there is even greater potential in parts of Asia, South America and Africa, where the number of vehicles is increasing very quickly. If belt usage in these regions approached European levels, tens of thousands of lives would be able to be saved. This in turn would put the total at far more than a hundred thousand lives saved globally every year.
Additional efforts are required
Since the 1960s, Volvo Cars has worked hard to increase belt usage. For instance, Nils Bohlin conducted a tour in connection with the US introduction of the three-point safety belt to convince people of its benefits.
In recent years, Volvo Cars has become involved through awareness campaigns, at the same time as the company has continuously made the belt more effective and convenient to use. Despite this, additional efforts are still required from both public authorities and private companies to achieve high safety belt usage throughout the world.
Ways of increasing safety belt usage
More convenient belts and the introduction of seat belt reminders have proven to be effective methods. Having said that, legislation, fines, campaigns and inspections are the main factors that increase safety belt usage. Compulsory belt usage is probably the most successful measure for saving lives on the road.
Legislation requiring all vehicles to be equipped with safety belts began to be introduced in the 1960s. However, it was not until 1971 that the first laws requiring belt usage were enacted. The state of Victoria in Australia was the first, and traffic fatalities dropped by 18 percent in the first year.
Nonetheless, despite the excellent results, it took another few years before the majority of European countries followed suit, with the USA joining in the past few years. There is still no legislation requiring rear safety belt use in many parts of the world, something that has a negative impact on both the use of the belt and passenger protection in the rear.
However, progress is being made. In 2003-2004 Costa Rica very successfully coordinated legislation, public-awareness campaigns and inspections for seat belts. They found usage rise from 24 to 82 percent of drivers during the year of the campaign. In South Korea, safety-belt campaigns watched by the GSRP and allied to a nationwide police crackdown with significantly raised fines led to a dramatic increase of belts by drivers - from 23 percent to 98 percent in less than one year.
Myths about the belt live on
Despite on-going awareness campaigns, perceptions and prejudices about the belt continue, including: that it could be dangerous to wear a belt if you get stuck upside-down, that it crushes your clothes, that it is uncomfortable, that the airbag will provide sufficient protection, etc. However, irrespective of one's objections, the basic rule is that it is always better - for everyone and at all speeds - to wear a safety belt than to not do so (despite the little crease you might get in your clothing).
The safety belt is, not least, vital in collisions at low speeds in city traffic - where most road collisions occur. The forces involved at low speeds are higher than many believe. Colliding at 50 kilometres an hour corresponds to falling from the third floor of a building. In comparison, a person can brace themselves for an impact of up to 7 kilometres an hour. It's for this reason The Swedish National Society for Road Safety says that the safety belt should always be used. The airbag is an excellent supplement, but it is just that - a supplement. It can never replace the safety belt.
How the belt should be positioned
For optimum safety, it is vital that the belt is positioned correctly. The diagonal strap should be positioned across the chest, as close to the neck as possible. This ensures the belt's correct angle so that the shoulder and chest are the areas of the body that absorb most of the force. The lower strap should be positioned across the hipbone down towards the thighs, not across the stomach. The belt should be pulled tight after being buckled. The closer it is to the body, the better the protection it offers. The belt should not be twisted or damaged.
Pregnant women should also wear the safety belt, even towards the end of their pregnancy. The belt should be placed tight against the shoulder with the diagonal section between the breasts and the side of the stomach. The hip section should lie flat against the side of the thigh and as low as possible below the stomach - it should never be allowed to slide up.
When a child is sitting on a booster cushion or child seat and using a three-point belt, the same belt geometry applies as for an adult. If the belt lies against the neck, that is not a problem. What is absolutely not permitted is to place the belt under the child's arm, since this may cause considerable injury.