Clunk, click – an invention that's saved lives for 50 years

WHAT do car occupants have to wear but truckers are excused? It is the three-point safety belt, patented 50 years ago at Volvo and claimed by the Swedes to have saved one million lives. The company had to lobby hard to get the world interested in its invention, though it wasn't the pioneer. Saab was fitting a lap belt as standard but this did little to protect the chest or head from hitting the steering wheel.

The three-point belt runs over the shoulder and diagonally across the chest. It keeps the occupant in the seat in a crash.

Volvo allowed everyone else to use its invention, and by 1963 they were commonly fitted for the driver, though not compulsorily worn in Britain until 20 years later. Today, all car occupants must wear a seat belt or child restraint. There are exceptions on medical grounds, and for older cars.

Yorkshiremen played a significant part in the seat belt's history. Sir George Cayley, born in Scarborough in 1773 and regarded as the pioneer of flight, used a rudimentary harness in the early 1800s on his glider.

In 1971, Jimmy Savile took over the "clunk click every trip" campaign, sponsored by RoSpa, with safety messages on television. That really got us thinking about wearing the belt. Clunk was the door closing. Click was the safety belt blade going into the buckle. An egg in a box was a graphic display of what happened to the driver without a seat belt.

There are those who say that the protection given by a seat belt makes us drive more carelessly, and that a spike on the steering wheel would sharpen our minds. Or that the belt could trap you in the car after a crash. They say similar things about airbags, which inflate in split seconds to save our heads, chests, hips, shoulders, arms and even knees in a collision. We can thank the Americans for the airbag, developed because they wouldn't wear seat belts. Many still abstain. In 1974, Cadillac fitted the airbag on all its cars. In 1987, the Porsche 944 Turbo was the first car to have two airbags as standard. Now almost every car has at least two airbags, and some as many as nine.

Today, the safest cars cocoon the occupants with technology. There are anti-lock brakes, which on dry surfaces prevent the wheels from skidding in an emergency stop, keeping the car under some control and allowing it to be steered around an obstacle. Open cars have strengthened windscreen frames and roll-bars at the back to give protection from crushing if the car flips upside down.

There is computerised stability control, which can cut the power or brake the appropriate wheels if they begin to spin or if the car is sliding out of control.

Its intervention is remarkable, and on some advanced cars the rear wheels also adjust their angle to help this correction. One dark evening I was in a Nissan Skyline GTR and moving at speed, thinking about getting home. Suddenly I was on a sharp left hand bend at too high a speed. Before I could react the car had configured itself to cope with my predicament and I felt the rear wheels playing their part in the recovery.

Airbags and seatbelts give good protection. You may get some minor abrasion injuries from the bag — or quite serious ones if you are not sitting correctly. A friend's life was saved when his Jaguar was forced off a mountain road by an oncoming 4x4. A tree halted the Jag from diving into the valley. The airbag stopped him going through the windscreen.

Top-end cars like Lexus and Mercedes are fitted with pre-crash systems. Once again it is the car's masterful computer which detects trouble. This could be heavy braking or a violent swerve. The seat belts are clamped tight to eliminate any slack. If a sunroof or windows are open they will be closed. Such systems will filter down to cheaper cars, but usually it is the premium priced models that give you most help to survive a crash. Not always, though – the affordable French maker Citron is offering some family cars with a system that warns if your car is wandering across the road. The relevant side of the driver's seat vibrates. Some Hondas have a lane correction device which, within certain parameters, steers the car back on track.

Car safety in Europe is monitored by EuroNcap tests, which check adult and child protection and injury to pedestrians. The best cars get five stars, Renault models always score highly, so you don't have to spend a fortune for safety.

Outside the car, devices like the breathalyser have kept intoxicated drivers off the roads. The roads themselves are integral to safety and motorists around the world benefit from reflective studs. The "cat's eye" was invented in 1933 by another Yorkshireman, Halifax's Percy Shaw, and put into production in 1935. Mr Shaw's inspiration was the reflection at night from tramlines in Bradford.

But we should end with a toast to Nils Bohlin (1920-2002), the Volvo engineer who developed the modern three-point seat belt. He came to Volvo from SAAB, where he developed ejector seats for fighter planes. Think about him next time you leave your children unbelted in the back seats.