The “kite” mark on all approved safety belts.
The figures published in this panel are based on statistics supplied by the Swedish Ministry of Transport. Despite a number of variables, such as Britain’s greater traffic density, balanced by the fact that Swedish roads are covered with snow and ice for three or four months of the year, these figures undoubtedly prove that the fitting of safety belts reduces the number of fatal accidents. This article sets out to probe the general background to seat belt design, and although there is still much to be learned it can be said that the fitting of one of the approved safety belts will help materially in reducing injuries.
The number of people who have never had an accident must be relatively small indeed, and those who really have escaped without so much as a scratch must he considered very fortunate. The use of safety belts is still very limited in Britain and accident statistics are not yet available in sufficient detail to prove the usefulness of the various forms of safety harness. Despite conflicting claims from manufacturers it became obvious that safety belts were saving lives even from the few personal accounts which were reaching us, and some months ago Motor Sport began investigating the equipment on offer. However, in discussions with manufacturers and car owners with safety belts fitted it became clear that there was little or no unity of opinion on the subject. As this all happened a year ago, before the British Standards Institution published its Standard for seat belts, manufacturers could make what claims they liked and very often did, and the purchaser had no means of checking their claims. In fact, there must be many drivers motoring on the roads today with safety harnesses which would fail the B.S.I. tests. A sobering thought.
Most of the research into the protection of car occupants in an accident has been done in the United States and Sweden, and much of this by Universities and private research organisations who have had considerable difficulty in making their voices heard. One prominent American scientist, Andrew J. White, did considerable research into seat belt design, then offered 5,000 dollars to the safety harness manufacturer who would drive a car fitted with a harness of his own make into a brick wall at 12 m.p.h. There was not one acceptance. The more rigid Swedish laws on drinking and speeding have obviously instilled some degree of discipline into the Swede and he has readily taken to seat belts. The Swedes have had a safety belt standard for some time (the B.S.I. Standard was evolved from it) and the use of seat belts is now comparatively common. Much play was made over the Christmas holiday by Mr. Marples that Sweden suffered only one fatal accident compared to Britain’s 127, but this can almost certainly be attributed to the very stringent laws on drunken driving and the use of safety belts. It would be interesting to see how many accidents occurred in Sweden as compared with fatalities.
The safety belt can only be considered as a palliative as there is still much research to be done by car manufacturers in making their cars less dangerous for occupants who may strike such things as dashboards, steering wheels, gear-levers and so on. If British manufacturers have carried out any research in this direction they have remained remarkably quiet on the subject, and the only visible sign of endeavours in this direction is some foam rubber padding on parcels shelves and dished or collapsible steering wheels. Only Daimler-Benz and Volvo have shown in public their efforts at increasing the safety factor of their cars, while Citroên have taken up the Belbrace Safety-Seat which was described by Dr. John Moore, a safety expert of Cornell University, as “the most efficient solution to the concept of passenger restraint of the human body in automobile and aircraft accidents I have ever seen.” Unfortunately this British invention is expensive and even on the Citroên is only available as an optional extra. This brings us to the question of how the motorist is to be convinced that safety belts will save his life. A considerable publicity campaign was waged to persuade motorcyclists to wear crash helmets, which has been quite successful, and a similar unofficial campaign is in hand for the safety belt but does not appear to be quite so successful. The general high cost of the equipment may be one factor but one would have to employ a psychologist to deduce the others. He would probably reason that those who do not fit belts feel that they are making a subconscious admission of fallibility, on the basis of “It couldn’t happen to me,” while those egoists who think that “given the chance I could show Stirling Moss the way round” have such an exaggerated idea of their own skill that they would never admit to ever making an error of judgment. However, one is sometimes involved in an accident through no fault of one’s own, and no matter how skilful the driver accidents occur with such terrifying suddenness that no driver in the world could possibly avoid them.
Many drivers would probably require some proof that a safety belt would be of use to them but unfortunately no official records are kept by the police and one must rely on personal reports to manufacturers, from grateful clients. No two accidents are alike, so it is impossible to dogmatise on the type of accident which one could survive, especially as the different makes of cars and belts would give differing results. It is also quite possible that with some types of belt or in some cars one could receive worse injuries than if a belt or harness was not fitted. For instance the driver of an open sports car who wears a full harness stands a far greater chance of injury in a roll-over accident as his head and shoulders would protrude from the car and the harness would prevent him from ducking into the cockpit. On the other hand he would stand a better chance in a head-on collision. At least one manufacturer refuses to sell a full harness to sports-car drivers and is reluctant even to sell him a lap belt. Racing drivers are treated likewise.
This leads us to a discussion on the various safety harness designs. Basically there are three different types: the lap strap, the diagonal shoulder strap (sometimes combined with a lap belt), and the full harness passing over both shoulders.
Amongst the large numbers of inquiries we have received on the subject perhaps the greatest proportion is from worried parents who carry their children frequently. Unfortunately there is no seat belt or harness specifically designed for the use of children, once again presumably due to lack of demand, and the only advice we can give is to always install the children in the rear seats whenever possible. This advice is especially directed at those people who allow children to stand on the front seats, thus exposing them to even more danger.
The simplest and generally the cheapest harness is the lap strap, a single belt, secured to the floor behind the seat. This, of course, allows the shoulders to move forward on impact although restraining the lower part of the torso, and before purchasing one of these it is essential to check that in the fully doubled-up position one’s head would not strike the dashboard or screen. If there is sufficient room to clear these obstacles (and many European cars do not have this sort of room) it is as well to check the width of the buckle, because if one were to fold up round a wide buckle it could well cause serious internal injuries or even broken ribs. The British Standard calls for a 4 in. maximum width but even this would seem to be on the large side. All in all, the lap, hip or waist belt, call it what you will, is the least satisfactory solution and should be avoided if at all possible, especially as a fuller harness is not considerably more expensive. To their great credit two British manufacturers will supply lap straps for rear-seat passengers only but to the best of our knowledge there is no other type of harness on the market for rear-seat passengers. This is presumably due to the fact that only a small percentage of car fatalities occur to rear-seat occupants and as manufacturers are not philanthropists they probably do not consider that there would he sufficient demand to warrant production costs.
Next we come to the diagonal strap, which is either fixed to the door pillar or floor, running across the driver’s body to the floor or prop.-shaft tunnel. This was evolved in Sweden, but it must be remembered that the largest selling Swedish car, the Volvo, has a tubular reinforcing member running round the body behind the front doors which gives an excellent anchorage for the strap. Many cars are not so strong at this point and the strap could well break away under severe impact, while in a roll-over accident involving crushing of the roof the subsequent slackening of the belt may allow the wearer to hit some solid object, While in a sideways impact the wearer may well slip out of the belt. Not that any type of harness is of great use in a sideways impact as the doors are so close to the occupants that one would have to be very tightly strapped in to avoid sideways movement. Last year Volvo superseded their single diagonal belt and introduced a combined diagonal lap strap and seat belt, and some British manufacturers have followed suit.
Finally the most expensive but also most effective form of safety harness, the double shoulder straps. These, of course, hold both shoulders in position as well as having a lap strap, thus allowing the minimum of forward movement for the body. This is, of course, criticised by some people as restricting movement too much when reversing or when getting away from a crashed and perhaps burning car, but surely is a small price to pay for the excellent protection it provides. Whilst these views on safety belts may seem unduly pessimistic, it must be remembered that with no belt at all serious injuries would be far more common.
The British Standard 3254 which refers to safety belts was published last July and is too long to publish here, and would be of interest only to the minority. For those interested, copies can be obtained from the British Standards Institution, 2, Park Street, London, price 4s. 6d. This standard is not to such a rigid specification as that used in Sweden, which now requires harness to withstand 40 G, and omits tests for cold, heat, action of sunlight, rotting through micro-organisms and ageing. There is also no dynamic test or a test for measuring elasticity and hysteresis. However, in the matter of strength of webbing and metal parts, each harness must withstand a load of 4,000 lb (20 G), equivalent to the force developed by a 14-stone man in a car travelling at 60 m.p.h. stopped in the space of 6 ft. The British Standards Institution do not publish results of their tests but an associated body, the Consumer Advisory Council, recently published comprehensive details of tests they had carried out on a number of safety belts. As these details are normally only revealed to members it would probably be necessary to become a member at the modest cost of 10s. per year to obtain the back issue pertaining to safety belts. The C.A.C. is situated at Orchard House, Orchard Street, London, W.1. The C.A.C. came to similar conclusions to the B.S.I. and gave passes to the same equipment except the Masco G-belt, which has since passed the B.S.I. tests. Whilst not being as searching as the Swedish tests the British Standard ensures that the equipment which has passed and is still in good condition will give a high degree of protection to wearers. Naturally, owners of safety harness should keep a watch on the condition of their equipment and would do well to replace it if it has already withstood a sizable impact, while if the equipment is allowed to fall on the floor and be trampled by muddy boots or be subjected to strong sunlight over long periods it would be wise to return it to the manufacturer for inspection. Mountings of anchorage plates should also be periodically checked.
There is still much to be learned about safety devices and there is much that manufacturers and drivers could do to minimise accidents. Accidents do not occur in a pre-determined pattern and one may well spin off backwards, when security of seats will be of as much importance as the safety belt and the danger of a whiplash injury to the neck will be more likely than in a forward-moving accident. A British Standard for headrests may well be implemented in the future and manufacturers will pay more attention to safety features of their cars. Until that time comes, one of the approved safety belts is a worthwhile investment.
[Where to buy your belt? — see opposite page.] M.L.T.