Saving Lives One at a Time

You don't know the name Nils Bohlin, but Nils Bohlin has saved more than a million people from sudden death in the last half century. His achievement? The creation of a feature found in every vehicle manufactured today, 43 years after its invention: the three-point safety belt.

A retired Volvo safety engineer, Bohlin was among 16 inventors inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, this year. More than 168 inventors have been immortalized in the NIHF during the past 30 yea rs -- individuals whose creations have shaped the way in which we live, such as Eli Whitney for the cotton gin and Orville and Wilbur Wright for the airplane, among others.

There is no doubt that Bohlin's invention has been a significant one in t he annals of automotive safety. According to the Volvo Car Corporation Traffic Accident Research Team, the three-point safety belt reduces the risk of injury or death in automobile accidents by 75 percent. It is believed to have saved as many as one mi ll ion lives since its development.

Bohlin began his career in engineering in the mid-1950s in the Swedish aviation industry, designing efficient ejector seats. At the time, the few safety belts installed in cars were anchored behind the car seat s a nd strapped across the body with the buckle placed over the abdomen. Unfortunately in high-speed crashes, this design allowed the body to move, and with the awkward position of the buckle, the belt itself could cause injury to body organs.

In 195 8, Volvo recruited Bohlin as the company's first dedicated safety engineer, and shortly thereafter, he translated his ideas into reality. Based on his experience designing ejector seats, the Swedish engineer understood the limitations of restraint de vices and turned his attention to restraining the human body as safely as possible under extreme movements.

"I realized both the upper and lower body must be held securely in place with one strap across the chest and one across the hips," he said. "T he belt also needed an immovable anchorage point for the buckle as far down beside the occupant's hip, so it could hold the body properly during a collision. It was just a matter of finding a solution that was simple, effective and could be put on conven iently with one hand."

Just a year after hiring Bohlin, Volvo introduced the patented three-point safety belt in European markets. By the mid-1960s, its availability and use became widespread in the United States as well. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans buckle up and 49 states have safety belt laws. One hundred percent utilization of seat belts is the goal set by most safety organizations and lawmakers.

Unfortunately, Bohlin, who currently resides in Sweden, was unable to at tend th e Hall of Fame ceremony, but his sons, Gunnar and Hakan Ornmark, accepted the award on his behalf. And Bohlin should accept the gratitude of millions of drivers and passengers whose lives have been enhanced by his invention.


Based in Vill eperce, France, Tom Ripley is always looking for ways to make life safer for himself and those he loves.