Saving a life can be so simple: grab, stretch, click! If you are wearing a safety belt, your chances of surviving a collision improve by 50 percent. The three-point belt is and will remain the car's most vital safety feature. 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 front or rear seats. 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," says Hans Nyth, head of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre.
It is the safety belt's ability to keep the occupant in the seat that is of crucial importance. A massive 75 percent of people thrown out of cars in accidents suffer fatal injuries. All told, the belt reduces the risk of fatalities and serious injuries during 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. Estimates put the figure at just over a million lives. And countless more 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 accidents specifically because they were wearing safety belts. The figure for Germany alone was 2000. Had these drivers not been using the belt, the number of fatalities in Germany that year would have doubled.
Corresponding estimates for the USA in 2004 show that safety belt use saved 15,200 lives and resulted in society saving 50 billion dollars in costs.
Still considerable potential
Safety belt use differs considerably in different parts of the world. In some parts, 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 on average 90-99 percent of front-seat passengers and 80-89 percent of rear-seat passengers wear their safety belts.
The USA has traditionally returned lower figures since that country's legislation lags behind in this area. However, the US reached a new record in 2008 with an average 83 percent of front-seat passengers using the safety belt.
In 2004 there were 620 million cars registered throughout the world, of which about 270 million were in Europe and about 202 million in the USA. By the end of 2008, this figure rose to about 800 million cars.
"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 Hans Nyth.
In the USA it is estimated that a one percent increase in belt use would save 270 lives a year. Studies in Europe show that another 7000 lives could be saved if all EU countries had the same belt usage level as the top member countries.
Therefore, there is 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 on the road is rapidly increasing.
If belt usage in these regions approached European levels, tens of thousands more lives could be saved. This would put the global average at far more than a hundred thousand lives saved every year.
Additional efforts are required
Since the 1960s, Volvo Cars has worked hard to increase belt usage. Nils Bohlin, the inventor of the three-point safety belt, even conducted a long presentation tour coinciding with the US introduction of the three-point safety belt to convince the widest possible audience of its benefits.
In recent years, Volvo has become involved with campaigns such as "Buckle up", and 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. But legislation, fines, campaigns and inspections are still the most effective means increase safety belt usage.
Legislation requiring all cars to be equipped with safety belts was slowly introduced in the 1960s. However, it was not until 1971 that the first laws requiring belt usage were enacted. That was in the state of Victoria in Australia, and traffic fatalities dropped by 18 percent in the first year.
Despite the excellent results, it took another few years before the majority of European countries followed suit, with the USA only joining in during 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 use of the belt and rear passenger protection.
Countries with low belt usage can, however, catch up quickly - Costa Rica is a good example. In 2003-2004 Costa Rica successfully coordinated legislation and public-awareness campaigns and safety belt usage rose from 24 to 82 percent during the year of the campaign.
In South Korea, safety-belt campaigns in conjunction with a nationwide police crackdown, as well as significantly raised fines, led to a dramatic increase in safety belt usage - from 23 percent to 98 percent in less than a year.
Myths about the belt
So why does everyone not use the belt if its effects are so good? One reason is that perceptions and prejudices about the belt still live on: that it could be dangerous to wear a belt if you get stuck upside-down in a car, that it crushes your clothes, that it is uncomfortable, that the steering wheel or airbag will provide sufficient protection and so on.
The results over the past fifty years, however, speak for themselves. Wearing a safety belt reduces the risk of injury - for everyone and at all speeds (despite the little crease you might get in your shirt or blouse).
The safety belt is, not least, vital in collisions at low speeds in city traffic - where most road accidents occur. The forces involved at low speeds are a lot higher than you might believe. Colliding at 50 kilometres an hour corresponds to falling from the third floor of a building. A person who is forewarned can brace himself for an impact of up to about 7 kilometres an hour. That is why 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. Placing the belt correctly ensures the shoulder and chest 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 a 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 the child considerable injury.
For more information contact Astrid de la Rey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 012 842 3316