Transport Canada’s “Seat Belt Sense” publication, describes Canadians as “among the most mobile people on earth” and Canada as having “900,000 kilometers of roads, 22 million licensed drivers and 20 million registered vehicles.” On a less upbeat note, it also reports that, in the mid-1970’s, more than 6,000 Canadians died each year in car crashes.
Twenty-five years later, however, —here things get better—by the late 1990’s, despite the increase in licensed drivers and registered vehicles, the crash-caused fatalities per year were under 3,000. New safety standards, improved highway and intersection engineering, four-lane divided highways, increased law enforcement, and changes in public attitudes about road safety are cited as contributing factors. But the focus is on seat belts.
According to online tables of government statistics for seat belt use in 22 of the most highly industrialized/motorized countries in the world, Canada has one of the highest rates of usage in all categories: for drivers (92%), front seat (91%) and back seat occupants (85%). Seat Belt Sense reports a slightly higher overall rating of 93% and claims, “each percentage increase…has helped to reduce the number of …fatalities” to the point where “seat belts save about 1,000 lives a year in Canada.” It adds that, “the 7% of Canadians not wearing seat belts account for almost 40% of fatalities….”
Seat belts are an obvious answer to the laws of physics and so it comes as no great surprise that the first patents for them date back to the late 19th century. But the three-point seat belt used in most vehicles today wasn’t patented until 1951, and it wasn’t until well into the 1960’s that seat belts became standard equipment on most new vehicles.
Airbags date back to the 1950’s but were not introduced until the 1970’s when—being a ‘passive’ or automatically activated feature—they offered a potential alternative to the low rate of seat belt usage. Today, seat belts and air bags are designed to work together to secure occupants in the “life space” of the vehicle, and to cushion heads as crash forces propel them toward the point of impact.
The good news about seat belts continues. Both Mercedes Benz and Ford have recently heralded a seat belt/airbag combination for rear-seat passengers. Crash sensors activate inflation of the two-layer belt webbing doubling its width within fractions of a second. The instantly wider, cushioned belt reduces pressure on the passenger’s chest by distributing the force more widely, and increases control over the head and neck motion. Ford’s plan is to offer this new technology in its vehicles globally.
Seat belts have been the subject of recent media discussion about nanny-statism run amok. In 1970, Victoria, Australia was the first jurisdiction in the world to pass legislation compelling drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. Since then, although such legislation has become commonplace, the debate has continued over its legitimacy as “solely aimed to protect a man from himself” and as an unacceptable infringement of liberty. Perhaps the time has come to thrash about new, more truly problematic, examples.