60 Years Of Life-Saving Seat Belts — Will Autonomy Eradicate Traffic Fatalities?

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My day job is as a laboratory technician and systems developer at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Aarhus University, Denmark, and as I had done so often before at lunch, I fell into an interesting conversation with the former head of the institute Markil Gregersen. He formally retired many years ago, but is still active working on publications in forensic sciences. This time we talked about seat belts and autonomous vehicles, and it prompted me to write this story.

Photo courtesy of Institute of Forensic Medicine, Aarhus Universiy, Lars Kruse

Markil Gregersen is a living library of forensic information, and it’s a privilege to sit with him and discuss all aspects of forensic pathology and chemistry, in the light of old and new individual cases of special interest. His own successor Annie Vesterby, who is now retired as head of the institute, is often keen to join in when we talk about self-driving cars. She owns a Tesla like I do, and we hope for a future with near-zero traffic fatalities due to the advancements in vehicle technology, but of course we fall short of predicting when that might happen.

Hopefully, one day, we will read articles on how technology has marginalized transportation accidents to a degree that it’s hardly anything we hear about, and certainly not something we spend much time on at the institute. The following story of the 3-point seat belt proves a good point of why it’s worthwhile to work with traffic safety.

The Apprentice

Markil Gregersen had recently finished contributing to an anniversary publication co-authored and compiled by experienced journalist Jakob Kehlet titled “100 Years of Forensic Medicine — Benefiting the Living,” in which I read some interesting things about the history of traffic fatalities. Markil Gregersen and I discussed the significance of the advent of the seat belt and we wondered if the arrival of self-driving technology would end traffic fatalities altogether.

Markil Gregersen had himself earlier published what was known as “The Chronicle — Institute of Forensics at Aarhus University 1959 – 2005” in which he mentions the very first report on traffic safety research in Denmark published by his predecessor, the late Jørgen B. Dalgaard in 1977 titled “Killed by Car — cause of accidents and effect of seat belts.

Simple types of seat belts are known from the beginning of the 1900s, but as it happens 2019 is the 60th anniversary of Volvo introducing Nils Bohlin’s innovative 3-point seat belt as standard equipment in their cars, and later when the concept was adopted fully in Denmark in the early 1970s, traffic fatalities began decreasing dramatically. In Denmark, the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1930 when recording began was noted in 2012 at 167, which is a remarkable low point considering the peak of 1213 fatalities in 1971.

Image courtesy: Volvo

So, just use seat belts, easy. Well, did you notice the time span between Volvo’s introduction in 1959 up until fatalities peaked in 1971? First of all, Sweden only used the 3-point seat belt domestically to begin with, and it was not until 1976 the use of seat belts would make it into national law in Denmark (still a lot earlier than the first American seat belt law of New York in 1984 though).

All those years took a toll on the Danish grand old man of traffic safety, Jørgen B. Dalgaard. He struggled to induce reason into politicians and public opinion in general, and because he eventually succeeded, he has undoubtedly helped save many, many lives. The following are translated abstracts from the publications mentioned above.

The Master

“A few years ago I bought a small motorbike for my daughter. Now I have bought it back for double the amount of what it’s worth,” professor Jørgen B. Dalgaard said in an interview in 1971. It was his accumulated knowledge of how dangerous it was to ride on motorized two-wheelers that had motivated him to cash out.

Professor Jørgen B. Dalgaard was notorious for his very direct teachings in the forensic discipline. He would drag the corpse of a motorcyclist in front of his startled forensic medicine students. At the time it was not required by law to wear a helmet, which was obvious in this case, since the victims skull was split clean open vertically from top to neck base as the result of hitting a lorry at high velocity.

Jørgen B. Dalgaard’s efforts to communicate the problems of traffic safety to the public and politicians was often very down to earth, and since the number of accidents in traffic had grown significantly since the second world war, he was determined to find the causes. He tirelessly published research papers on anything related to traffic fatalities, from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by defective exhaust systems to physical trauma.

In the 1960s traffic accidents were the most common cause of death for Danish men below the age of 40. Traffic fatalities were so common that newspapers would just publish long lists of them every day. Jørgen B. Dalgaard found that the most common causes of injury was high speed and lack of safety equipment. Even though seat belts became more common in the 1960s, with several car models available with seat belts in the front seats, there were still no speed limits and no laws requiring use of seat belts at the end of the decade.

The professor’s young apprentice doctor Markil Gregersen, who came to the institute in 1963, was given most autopsies of traffic accident victims in the Jutland area. This was a somewhat low profile task in the beginning, but because of Jørgen B. Dalgaard’s consistent focus on the problem of ever-increasing number of victims, Markil Gregersen took the job very serious, and with great effort and diligence, he gathered information that would become significant in Jørgen B. Dalgaard’s research.

In one of these cases Markil Gregersen performed the autopsy of a cyclist who had been hit by a car, and he was puzzled by the fact that the victim had one arm and one leg torn off. The young forensic doctor was curious to see the car, and he observed that it had “eyelids” at the headlights, like metal baseball cap shades, and this design feature obviously had cut off the victims leg. The A-pillar had torn the victims arm off. A few years later many of these protruding design ornaments on passenger cars were made illegal.

Jørgen B. Dalgaard’s great passion to understand the root causes for traffic fatalities finally rubbed off on the police, and an effective cooperation was formalized by assigning a senior officer to assist the professor in his research. Jørgen B. Dalgaard later wrote in his memoirs:

“The public seemed to think that these fatalities were like a law of nature — which I find quite upsetting! … We have presented overwhelming facts and clear results. One would think this would be enough, but no, people will not take this seriously. Which is why I have to try to influence public opinion and human sluggishness!”

Markil Gregersen made an enormous effort to compile the pathological information including death certificates, police reports, and technical vehicle inspection reports from all over the country. Jørgen B. Dalgaard would personally review thousands of accident site photos and examine the vehicles himself. By cross referencing all this data, it was his hope to find the root causes of these accident. How did alcohol, medicine, technical vehicle configurations, road layout, road conditions, other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians fit into the bigger picture?

When Jørgen B. Dalgaard’s first results were published in 1966 it was clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that the lack of use of safety features such as seat belts in cars and helmets for motorcyclists was the main cause of death in fatal traffic accidents. He was actively promoting his findings in the media and he even suggested that insurance companies paid double compensation to relatives of victims who had, despite a fatal outcome, used seat belts or helmets, as incentive to spread consensus of the benefits of safety equipment in general.

Photograph of poster courtesy of Den Gamle By (The Old City) Aarhus Museum automobile section

However, there was still great resistance in the general public against the use of seat belts. People found them tedious, as you would get caught in the belts getting out of the vehicle, and many thought they would prevent you from getting out of a burning car. Jørgen B. Dalgaard rigorously debunked such claims by affirming with statistical facts that you would have a better chance getting out of a burning car had you not been rendered unconscious by being tossed around inside the car.

See, this was the nature of traffic accidents that people did not understand: If your body is not constrained inside a moving car, it will continue it’s trajectory if the car meets sudden resistance, like another car, and your body will hit hard metal, plastic, and glass at the speed the car was traveling. Some would even argue that you were better off being thrown out of the car at impact, which would, in the light of simple physics, just further infuriate the professor.

However, the most bizarre argument against seat belts came from a driving instructor in the city of Silkeborg who in an interview in 1966 claimed that speed devils would feel more secure being fastened inside the car and thus would drive much faster and be that much of a danger to the public! Lucky for Jørgen B. Dalgaard, this seemed too ridiculous to the public and the statistical argument in favor of the seat belt won.

Another of the Institute’s young doctors, Kate Runge, found interest in this field, and Jørgen B. Dalgaard encouraged her to focus on child safety. Being a mother herself, she felt compelled to dive in, and over a decade she meticulously examined 175 cases of automotive child fatalities, and concluded that 40% of these deaths could have been prevented had the child been properly fastened in a child seat. Her work directly influenced how manufacturers would design child seats from that point on.

All this work over the years was not in vain. Slowly, starting in the 1970s, legislators began to see the gravity of the hard work being done at the different institutes of forensics in the country. In 1973, speed limits were again written into Danish law (they had been absent since 1953), and even though the main reason for this was the oil crisis, it just happened to lower the number of traffic fatalities significantly as well. Finally, in 1976, it was written into law to use any available seat belt in the front seats. In 1990, an update to the law included the back seats as well.

Jørgen B. Dalgaard passed away in 2002, but the work he started to improve passenger safety continues to this day, and had the professor been alive today he would probably have advocating for bicycle helmets, and who knows, self-driving autonomous vehicles.

Photo courtesy of Markil Gregersen (left) being inaugurated as professor by Jørgen B. Dalgaard (right) in 1990

Remember the motorcycle the professor bought back from his daughter? She teased him by saying that she could now afford an even bigger motorcycle, but in fact she bought a car instead. This calmed the stubborn father since it’s a statistical fact that cars are much safer that motorcycles, for the driver of the car that is.

Fun Fact About Nils Bohlin

He first worked with ejection seats for fighter jets at SAAB designed to get the pilot outside of the vehicle before moving on to Volvo to make seat belts to keep people inside the vehicle.

Photo courtesy of www.media.volvocars.com

See one of the first videos with Nils Bohlin demonstrating his seat belts here, and notice how scared that live crash test “dummy” looks.

Even though Bohlin gets the most credit for inventing the 3-point seat belt because his work resulted in the first cars built with them as standard safety equipment, they were in fact used in aviation long before that (mostly in the form of clumsy harnesses). According to Wikipedia, the first modern 3-point seat belt was patented in 1955 by the Americans Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven.

Drive safely, and should you choose to purchase a Tesla for that purpose, feel free to use my referral code to get lots of free miles: https://ts.la/jesper18367

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Jesper Berggreen

Jesper had his perspective on the world expanded vastly after having attended primary school in rural Africa in the early 1980s. And while educated a computer programmer and laboratory technician, working with computers and lab-robots at the institute of forensic medicine in Aarhus, Denmark, he never forgets what life is like having nothing. Thus it became obvious for him that technological advancement is necessary for the prosperity of all humankind, sharing this one vessel we call planet earth. However, technology has to be smart, clean, sustainable, widely accessible, and democratic in order to change the world for the better. Writing about clean energy, electric transportation, energy poverty, and related issues, he gets the message through to anyone who wants to know better. Jesper is founder of Lifelike.dk and a long-term investor in Tesla, Ørsted, and Vestas.

Jesper Berggreen has 237 posts and counting. See all posts by Jesper Berggreen