Travel | August 30, 2021 1:21 pm

How Airplane Seatbelts Took Hold After Surviving a Wave of Misinformation

Flying was once a very different experience

A row of three empty airplane seats without passengers in a commercial airliner with light coming in through the open windows
Much like their automotive counterparts, airplane seatbelts have a long history.

Seatbelts are an essential part of traveling by car, but this wasn’t always the case. The first statewide requirement for seatbelts in cars didn’t come until 1961, and it wasn’t until later in the decade that that policy went nationwide. It’s a complex saga, but it turns out the process of getting seatbelts into commercial airlines is every bit as multifaceted.

In a new article for Air & Space Magazine, Jan Bridgeford-Smith ventures into the history of seatbelts on airplanes. The article puts the work of Hugh DeHaven, the founder of the Crash Injury Research (CIR) project at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, into the spotlight.

Bridgeford-Smith cites a 1947 New York Times article written by DeHaven as particularly emblematic of the work he did. In it, DeHaven criticized “the false conviction that the use of safety belts would cause internal injury when crashes occur,” and made the case for the necessity of seatbelts on flights.

A 1950 crash landing in London, which killed 28 people, gave some ammunition to the anti-seatbelt crowd when initial findings pointed to passengers’ seatbelts as having contributed to their deaths. But the CIR’s own review of the same data led to a comprehensive rebuttal, and by 1958, Congress had passed the Federal Aviation Act, which paved the way for new safety measures.

The Air & Space article also notes that the push for seatbelts on airplanes had an influence on the movement to install seatbelts in cars. Bridgeford-Smith notes that Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed took inspiration from DeHaven’s research, and left its own mark on the way Americans travel. Transportation safety doesn’t happen in a bubble — and what made for safer flights also made for safer drives.