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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 1
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Nothing decreases the chance of injury or death during a road collision as much as the trusted three-point seatbelt. Since its rollout in the 1950s, it has saved more than a million lives on roads around the globe.
But it’s been a long, often bumpy ride. English inventor George Cayley first came up with the idea way back in the 19th century, deploying them for another one of his inventions: the glider. And though seatbelts became a standard feature in airplanes by the 1930s, it would take another generation before it clicked that they’d be crucial in cars—and even then not many chose to wear them. Now, they’re ubiquitous, yet not always universally used.
Let’s get rolling.
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 2
30: Age at which car crashes cease to be the leading cause of death globally
1.35 million: People estimated to die each year in road collisions
20-50 million: People injured each year in road collisions
99%: Share of French drivers who buckle up
3.1–3.8%: Share of Egyptians who buckle up in the front seat
50%: Increased chance of survival in a crash with a seatbelt
90+%: Share of global road fatalities that happen in poor or middle-income countries
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 3
The vast majority of countries have mandatory seatbelt laws. But what those laws stipulate, and how they’re enforced, is all over the map. Just look at France and Egypt: The former has the highest seatbelt usage rate in the world; the latter the lowest. Yet both countries have laws on the books requiring citizens to buckle up.
These global discrepancies are at least partly due to how the legislation works. Primary laws in the US, for example, allow police to pull over drivers and issue tickets on the sole basis of not wearing seatbelts. By contrast, secondary laws mean that police can only stop drivers for other issues, like driving too fast, and only then check that the belt is fastened.
Evidence suggests that seatbelt usage is about 9 percentage points lower in states that only have secondary seatbelt laws. It could be why the US, with an 86% seatbelt use rate according to the latest WHO data, lags behind many rich countries.
The CDC estimates that if primary laws replaced all secondary laws in the US, a country where 36,560 people died in car collisions in 2018, millions more people would be buckling up. (Nearly half the people killed in passenger vehicles were not restrained that year.)
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 5
“Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”
—Muhammad Ali, aboard a passenger jet in 1980. Legend (and that may be all it is) has it that the flight attendant retorted: “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 6
The three-point seatbelt (which has a strap across the lap and diagonally across the chest) is the most important safety device in a car. Its most stunningly helpful feature is that it prevents passengers—whether riding in the front or back—from getting tossed out of the vehicle, a violent experience that kills 75% of the passengers to which it happens.
In scientific terms, a seatbelt minimizes the raw force on a passenger during a collision (calculated as F= -½ mv^2 / d). If you’re 160 lbs, driving 30 mph, and not wearing a seatbelt at the time of a collision, you’d be subject to 12 tons of force. But wearing a stretchy seatbelt that increases your body’s stopping distance to 1.5 feet means you’ll be subject to a much smaller 1.6 tons of force instead.
In practical terms, a seatbelt reduces your velocity before impact. And it distributes much of the remaining stopping force to the rib cage and pelvis, parts of the body that are better able to sustain injury than, say, the neck.
Airplanes have stuck with the lift lever buckle style, even though they disappeared from cars long ago. But there’s a good reason: There’s not much a three-point seatbelt will do to save you from a plane crash, so the extra weight involved in making a seat that would work with them isn’t worth it. For turbulence and other minor-ish events, the old style works just fine, and in some cases even better.
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 7
19th century: English engineer George Cayley designs a seatbelt for his glider
1885: The first US patent for a seatbelt is filed
1949: Nash Motors becomes the first US company to sell vehicles with seatbelts
1956: Ford Motors began installing them in some models and promoting their use
1959: Volvo releases the three-point seatbelt
1966: The Very Important Person (VIP) dummy is invented, revolutionizing crash testing
1968: A US federal law requiring all vehicles to be fitted with seatbelts takes effect
1984: New York becomes the first state to require wearing a seatbelt
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 8
Only 14% of Americans buckled up in 1984, before the first mandatory seatbelt law took effect.
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 9
Volvo didn’t invent the seatbelt, or even the three-point variety it’s so closely associated with. (Two Americans, Roger Griswold and Hugh De Haven, patented the idea eight years earlier in 1951.) But what Volvo engineer and former aircraft designer Nils Bohlin grasped better than anyone is the importance of convenience in uptake. His decision to scrap the awkward buckle in the middle reduced the time it takes to fasten a seatbelt to mere seconds.
“The pilots I worked with were willing to put on almost anything to keep them safe in case of a crash, but regular people in cars don’t want to be uncomfortable even for a minute,” he once said.
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 11
Fewer Americans have been as influential—or as divisive—as consumer activist and perennial US presidential candidate Ralph Nader. Time and Life have called him one of the “100 most influential Americans” of the 20th century. But long before his quixotic 2000 White House run, Nader catapulted into the national spotlight over the issue of automotive safety.
His 1965 bestseller Unsafe at Any Speed investigated how cars—particularly the Chevrolet Corvair—prioritized style over safety, with devastating human costs. General Motors hired private investigators to tail the then-32-year-old lawyer, even hiring women to try to seduce him at a grocery store.
When US lawmakers got wind, they were furious, and summoned GM’s president before Congress. “And so you hired detectives to try to get dirt on this young man to besmirch his character because of statements he made about your unsafe automobiles?” said senator Abraham Ribicoff, according to the 2006 documentary An Unreasonable Man. “And you didn’t find a damned thing.”
GM eventually paid Nader $425,000 ($2,825,713 in today’s dollars) in what was then a record sum in an out-of-court settlement for invasion of privacy. The funds were reportedly used as seed money to launch the modern consumer protection movement in the US.
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Quartz Obsession — Seatbelts — Card 12
Though Nader’s battle with GM was very much a David and Goliath tale, the consumer activist soon got an army of volunteers—students, housewives, lawyers, professors, engineers, and scientists—to produce reports and books that would advance the case for consumer rights in the US. These people would be dubbed “Nader’s Raiders.”
The impact of Nader and his associates’ work led to the passage of landmark legislation—including the Freedom of Information Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Whistleblower Protection Act—which would arguably rival that of any contemporary US president.
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