Compulsory wearing of safety belts on the front seats of passenger cars from January 1, 1976
First safety belt at Mercedes-Benz incorporated in the 300 SL roadster
The belt forms part of the safety philosophy of the future
Wearing safety belts became compulsory in Germany on January 1, 1976 – on the front seats of passenger cars, to be precise, that is for driver and front passenger. In preceding years, accident tests had clearly proved how important the safety belt as a restraint system is in a collision.
As early as 1974, all new cars sold in Germany were equipped with safety belts on the front seats as standard. Mercedes-Benz, time and again a pioneer in vehicle safety engineering, had been fitting the front seats in all passenger cars with state-of-the-art three-point inertia-reel belts as early as 1973. In addition, the front seats were also fitted with safety head restraints.
Individual freedom or decreed safety?
Organizations such as the German Automobile Club ADAC began in 1975 promoting the safety system prior to the introduction of the obligation to wear safety belts. However, there was a lot of opposition against the decree, revolving not just around the technical aspects of the restraint system but also, and above all, around the political nature of the decree.
Does the state have the right to dictate the use of a safety system at the wheel to politically mature citizens? This question was controversially discussed in Germany in 1975, and the news journal “Der Spiegel” even wrote a cover story about the obligation to wear safety belts. But all the protests and discussions did nothing to prevent the law from coming into force. Safety belts had to be fastened on the front seats of passenger cars from January 1, 1976. Wearing safety belts on the rear seats became compulsory in 1984.
In the same year, a fine amounting to DM 40 was for the first time im-posed on drivers and front-seat passengers who did not wear their safety belts. Two years later, a DM 40 fine was equally imposed on driving without a safety belt in the rear. Today the fine per person is € 30.
Safety belts at Mercedes-Benz
Fast, elegant and desirable – these attributes apply to the open-top Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, a car based on the 1955 Gullwing coupe and launched by the Stuttgart-based motor manufacturer in 1957. For this roadster (W 198 II), a new restraint system was available from 1958, which was to protect occupants in an accident: the safety belt. This, the first belt, was a lap belt similar to those used in aircraft. And indeed the new passive safety element was announced as early as 1957 as a “belt to be fastened by the occupant, modeled on the aircraft seat belt.” First and foremost, the new system was to protect the driver and passenger from being hurled out of the car in an accident.
In 1958, the safety belt, meanwhile featuring in the model brochure under this name, became optionally available for the first time in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL roadster – at an extra cost of DM 110 per seat. By comparison, a Becker Mexico radio with automatic aerial was op-tionally available to buyers of the sports car at a surcharge of DM 810.
In the same year, Mercedes-Benz offered comparable safety belts for all passenger cars with individual front seats. For the Mercedes-Benz 220 S (W 180 II series), for instance, the safety equipment cost DM 120 per seat and as much as DM 150 per seat for the Mercedes-Benz 300 d (W 189 series).
From static two-point belt to automatic three-point belt
After the introduction of the safety belt as an optional equipment item, the restraint system was continuously further developed. The first versions were still lap belts attached to the bodywork to be individually adjusted to each passenger. This was tiresome but afforded greater protection in an accident as compared to cars without belts. Among the customers who were convinced of the effectiveness of the new system was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer who had a lap belt fitted in the rear of his Mercedes-Benz 300.
From 1961, equipping Mercedes-Benz passenger cars with safety belts became easier as from that time onward, all cars were fitted with belt attachment points on the front seats. For individual seats, the Stuttgart-based brand offered shoulder belts exclusively. This version had only two attachment points as well but protected the wearer more effectively against hitting the instrument panel than a lap belt. From 1962, belt attachment points became standard equipment also on the rear seats.
In the late 1960s, the three-point belt – combining lap with shoulder belt – became the standard in passenger cars. The addition of the inertia-reel function resulted in the creation of the automatic safety belt. In 1973, Mercedes-Benz incorporated this type of safety belt in the standard specifications for the front seats.
Before that, the continuously further developed belts had always been optionally available. For the S-Class (W 116) a pair of safety belts (for the front or rear seats) cost DM 120 in 1972 – the price for belts front and rear was twice as high. Automatic belts were available for the W 114/115 series from the summer of 1972 – at a price of DM 120 for the front seats and of DM 240 for both seat rows. The static belts installed until the spring of 1972 had cost DM 70 for the front seats and DM 135 for both seat rows.
Safety belt and airbag
After the integration of the front safety belts in the standard specifications in 1973, three-point safety belts were also fitted as standard on the rear seats from 1979. With design details such as the three-level height adjustment of the belt in the S-Class, the safety system was more easily adaptable to the occupants to develop its maximum effect in a collision.
The airbag made its international debut in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W 126 series) in 1981. The new safety system protected the driver against the consequences of a serious accident in that a fabric bag was inflated – as it is today – in split-seconds after a crash to cushion the driver’s impact against the steering wheel. The driver airbag (standard since 1992) was followed by the front passenger airbag in 1988 (standard since 1994) and other systems such as side airbags and windowbags. The most recent developments are adaptive systems which act in response to the severity of the accident in each individual case.
Mercedes-Benz did not replace the safety belt by the airbag but combined both features into an effective restraint system. In 1981, a novel belt tensioner (standard since 1984) was introduced to boost the effectiveness of the safety belt in an accident. Mercedes-Benz improved the performance of the belt tensioner still further in 1995 by combining it with the integrated belt force limiter. Both systems control the safety belt so as to ensure maximum effectiveness without exerting excessive loads on the occupants.
Safely belted into the future
Thirty years after the wearing of safety belts became compulsory, they are familiar elements of passive safety. And the restraint system still has a lot of potential for future development. The PRE-SAFE® safety system – forming part of the PRO-SAFE™ safety philosophy – of Mercedes-Benz therefore continues to include the safety belt as an integral element. When the PRE-SAFE® sensors identify the imminent risk of an accident, the system, among other things, pretensions the mechanical belt tensioners by means of electric motors to provide the belt’s maximum protective action.
Active safety technology in Mercedes-Benz vehicles means that restraint systems adjust to the type and severity of an accident and react accordingly. Adaptive belt force limiters, for instance, ensure that a defined length of the black strap is released when a specific load acts on the seat belt. In a severe accident, this further reduces the forces exerted by the belt.