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 detail. 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 the 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 die in the process. All told, the 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. Estimates put the figure at just over a million lives. And 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 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 front-seat passengers using the safety belt.
In 2004 there were 620 million cars registered throughout the world, of which about 270 in Europe and about 202 million in the USA. At the end of 2008, this figure is expected to approach 800 million cars all told. The number of traffic fatalities globally in 2008 is expected to reach an unbelievable 1.2 million people. Most of the increase in new cars and drivers is taking place outside Europe and the USA.
"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 each 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 best member countries.
There is therefore still considerable unexploited lifesaving potential in the safety belt in industrialised countries that have long been using the car. And there is even greater potential in parts of Asia, South America and Africa, where the number of cars is increasing very quickly.
If belt usage in these regions approached European levels, tens of thousands more lives would be able to be saved. This in turn would put the total at far more than a hundred thousand lives 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 long presentation tour in connection 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 through campaigns such as "Buckle up", 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 by the authorities for saving lives on the road.
Legislation requiring all cars to be equipped with safety belts began to be introduced way back 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 that very first year.
Nonetheless, 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 passenger protection in the rear.
Countries with low belt usage ratings can catch up quickly, like for instance in Costa Rica. In 2003-2004 Costa Rica very successfully coordinated legislation, public-awareness campaigns and inspections along the lines of the industrialised countries. Usage rose from 24 to 82 percent of drivers during the year of the campaign.
In another part of the world, in South Korea, safety-belt campaigns allied to a nationwide police crackdown and 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
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. 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 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 way 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. 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 the child considerable injury.