How one company gave up a patent—and saved 1 million lives | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaMay 8, 2021
When you hit upon an idea that could fetch you millions of dollars, what do you do? If you are Volvo, you give it away for free and save millions of lives.
As a country, India ranks number one in road accident deaths, accounting for 11% of all traffic fatalities around the world. This number could well be higher had it not been for the three-point seatbelt, which has saved at least 1 million lives over the past 61 years. It has been proven that a seatbelt can reduce the chances of injury and death by 50%—good odds, if you ask us. So whom should you thank? An engineer and a corporate honcho.
Turning personal tragedy into public good
Up until the ’50s, cars had been using the two-point belt, which was more like a harness that went around the lap. While it stopped you from flinging your whole self into the front of the car in case of an accident, it couldn’t prevent your upper body from crashing into the steering. In the 1950s, Volvo came up with a diagonal belt, like a sash, where the two ends met at the chest. It was an improvement in some ways, but far from perfect. The position of the buckle was leading to serious injury to the internal organs. For Volvos’ President Gunnar Engellau, this flaw hit home when he lost a member of the family to a road-accident. The death was partly due to the imperfections in the two-point belt. This was also the problem with a Y-shaped belt that some car makers had tried.
Volvo’s gift to the world
Determined to fix things for good, Engellau brought over aeronautical engineer Nils Bohlin to Volvo. The engineer had been perfecting the ejection seat in fighter aircraft for plane-maker Saab, where he had to deal with scenarios equally drastic, if not more. Bohlin used his understanding of physics and anatomy to come up with the three-point belt which restrains the wearer without hurting the internal organs. Bohlin’s innovation also tackled another problem with the previous designs—that the belts were difficult to put on, and almost always needed two hands. The new three-point belt could be strapped in one sweep.
In 1962, Volvo won a patent for this life-saving device. Now, other auto-makers would have to refrain from copying the idea, or would have to pay millions of dollars in licence fees to use it. Volvo had a very strong case to hold on to its patent—it had invested plenty of time and money in research and testing. But Engellau immediately released the patent and allowed other car makers to use that in their vehicles. Putting people over profit, Volvo went on to save lives. By some estimates, the number is over a million.