"It clicks for me": The German Transport Council's advertising campaign for seatbelts in 1975
Photo: German Road Safety Council
FDP leader Christian Lindner made the argument, as did Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder (CSU), and it keeps popping up in social networks: The vaccination obligation that is currently being discussed is not that bad.
After all, Germans have long accepted that the law obliges them to buckle up in their cars.
Freedom is sacrificed for security - and nobody has anything against it?
The irony of history: Many people thought exactly the other way around, before mandatory seat belts were introduced in the Federal Republic of Germany on January 1, 1976 (in the GDR 1980).
Because at that time there was still compulsory vaccination, at least against smallpox.
That may still be possible, but the regulation for motorists would then be too difficult an encroachment.
DER SPIEGEL argued in a cover story called “Tied up in a car”, presented with a shock photo of a woman with a bloody face behind a splintered windshield and a threatening black belt pulling through the image: “A legally enforced seat belt obligation would be even less legitimate than the state compulsory vaccination, because belt damage is so severe seldom are not and the belt, unlike the mandatory vaccination, predominantly only serves for self-protection. "
The text comprehensively shed light on the acceptance problems and arguments of questioners - and this is likely to have exacerbated them by the sensational presentation.
To the credit of the colleagues at the time, however, it must be said that the article argues mainly in favor of buckling up.
The comparison of vaccination and seat belt compulsory should be used with caution - if only because traffic accidents are not contagious.
And yet a look back reveals astonishing parallels to today's debate.
It was a long way to acceptance, including numerous curiosities.
Problem: Many dead
With mass motorization came mass extinction.
In 1970, the number of road deaths in the Federal Republic of Germany rose to a record 19,193 (for comparison: in 2020 the number fell to 2,719 in Germany, which was reunified in the meantime), and for the first time more than half a million people were injured in road traffic.
The federal government introduced a speed limit of 100 km / h outside built-up areas and an alcohol limit of 0.8 per mille.
These steps were successful, but the "car victim incidence" remained far too high.
Hope or: The somewhat different Swedish special route
The seat belt had long been developed and was used in combat aircraft during World War II. US manufacturer Nash Motors started installing lap belts in cars in 1949, but at that time they were hardly in demand. The breakthrough came with the three-point belt, patented in 1959 by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin and proven to be an effective lifesaver in a study of 28,000 Swedish accidents. Volvo released the invention for use by others - which is now also required by vaccine manufacturers.
Initially, Volvo and Saab installed belts as standard, other manufacturers offered them as extras that were subject to a surcharge.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the time was ripe: "Half of the killed motorists could live if they had put on a seat belt," said VW Development Board Member Ernst Fiala.
The German Association of Liability and Accident Insurers (HUK) came to a similar conclusion.
From 1974 onwards, the front seats of new cars were compulsory in the Federal Republic of Germany.
In a survey, 90 percent of Germans named the belt as useful protection.
Experience: Australia and New Zealand show how it's done
International pioneers showed how to do it: The Australian state of Victoria required buckling up in 1970, soon followed by all of Australia and New Zealand.
Within months, the number of accident victims fell by around a third.
In 1973, France prescribed the belt at least outside of town.
The federal government initially relied on buckling up voluntarily and launched large-scale advertising campaigns that were supposed to make drivers click.
“First strap on, then start,” became the best-known slogan.
Female models were photographed with slogans such as "Skiers wear a belt" or "Up with is better".
Inertia: Much too low a belt rate
Belts, if any, were hardly used.
The Federal Highway Research Institute found in the spring of 1972 that only six percent of motorists always used a seat belt.
By 1974, despite advertising, the value only rose to nine percent.
"The correlation between thinking and behavior in many areas is zero," said Johannes Clemens Brengelmann, director at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, the SPIEGEL.
He included himself in the evidence: he always drives his 280 Mercedes without wearing the seat belt.
"This is too much work for me."
Fear - of belt damage
A socio-psychological study by the Delberg Institute in Cologne, commissioned by the Federal Highway Research Institute, found a paradoxical effect at the beginning of 1973: The aid works more as a "safety belt" because it arouses the unpleasant thought of accidents that would otherwise not affect drivers.
It first draws attention to the danger - and creates displeasure.
The fear is therefore projected onto the belt itself.
"Many think of someone who has passed out and a fire blazes at their feet, or of a burning coffin."
Krude Zweifel: The lateral thinkers of 1975
Couldn't it be that someone had an accident precisely because the seat belt was preventing them from escaping from a car that burned or fell into water?
A landmark ruling by the Federal Court of Justice in 1970 denied that seat belt refusers were complicit in injuries caused by accidents - even if the data on this was extremely thin.
The judges claimed that the effectiveness of the belts had not yet been adequately tested.
The book "La ceinture qui tue" (The belt that kills) by the French singer and ex-insurance manager Jérôme Spycket became a bestseller among lateral thinkers in 1975.
Confusion: False Balancing and Whataboutism
The seat belt opponents received nourishment through information from accident researchers and surgeons about weaknesses in the seat belt: "film reel effect" due to excessive unrolled automatic seat belts, "submarining" of bodies submerging under the simple lap belt. The Battelle Institute in Frankfurt, commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Transport, warned of brain damage caused by accelerating the head while holding the upper body. Heidelberg researchers blamed belts for serious spinal injuries and described an age effect: From 40 years of age, belt injuries are "more common and more dangerous". Such stimulus words got stuck, the statistics clearly speaking for buckling up got less stuck.
Those who, like the psychoanalyst Horst Eberhard Richter, pointed to a "certain hypocrisy" could make a name for themselves as a critical spirit.
The state picks out "just one of the multitude of self-endangerments - cigarette or alcohol consumption, poor diet, lack of exercise or overwork -".
The term "whataboutism" was not yet popular at the time.
Split: "civil war" around the belt
The Delberg psychologists found in supporters and opponents of the seat belt a "tendency to become radicalized and to polarize around extremes".
From the point of view of the interviewees, some were "philistines and pedants who confuse all traffic with their pathologically cautious driving style";
the others "irresponsible, indifferent, superficial, reckless, aggressive".
The two camps became estranged from each other.
SPIEGEL even wrote of a "civil war" over the seat belt.
Yield: seat belts are mandatory, checks are not
Transport Minister Lauritz Lauritzen (SPD) had declared in the Bundestag at the beginning of 1974, "When it comes to thousands of road deaths, the discussion ends for me". But that was just the beginning of the discussion. At the traffic court day in Goslar, the majority found the belt useful, but the obligation to wear it was unconstitutional. "Even if the belt only has a disadvantageous effect in one out of a hundred cases, that is not a factor that can be neglected," lectured the former BGH criminal judge Heinrich Jagusch, author of the leading commentary on traffic law.
For fear of lawsuits, seat belts were compulsory in 1976 without any sanctions with which they could have been enforced - a curiosity in legal history.
The Bonn Ministry of Transport slowed down a Federal Council initiative for a fine shortly beforehand.
Lauritzen's successor, Kurt Gscheidle (SPD), set a kind of grace period for the magazine Auto, Motor und Sport: If we cannot increase the investment quota significantly within the next two years, I will again discuss a fine. "
Despite: "Death penalty through the back door"
Insurance companies have transformed themselves from drivers of compulsory seat belts to brakes.
"We will not draw any conclusions from the new regulations," said HUK director Hansheinrich Brumm.
"We'll pretend they don't exist." They don't want to take on "the bogeyman role".
This might have threatened if the insurers had demanded accident costs or higher premiums from seatbelt refusers.
"Pretend they don't exist," was a popular response to the seat belt requirement.
The seat belt rate increased from 42 percent in November 1975 to 62 percent in January 1976, but fell back to 49 percent by October.
The trend of declining accident casualty numbers was also broken, perhaps aided by the release of the speed limit that had been reduced in the meantime on motorways.
Politically, the belt resistance held up.
In 1982 traffic judge Hans Kindermann spoke of the »death penalty through the back door« because a fine of 20 D-Marks was planned and promised real compulsion to wear a seat belt.
Then the social-liberal coalition burst.
The new CSU Transport Minister Werner Dollinger overturned the regulation before he took office, again praised the "self-responsibility of road users" and launched a new advertising campaign.
The police could not be expected to control buckling, it said from Bavaria.
Consequence: "Belt or death!"
Gradually, however, the scientific view of the advantages of buckling up took hold.
In 1979 the Federal Court of Justice ruled, contrary to its view expressed a decade earlier, that seat belt refusers were complicit in accidental damage.
Labor courts in particular followed the requirement.
Allianz accident researcher Max Danner summed up an uncompromising line with the book title "Belt or Death!" In 1983.
Because there were again more deaths in accidents, Transport Minister Dollinger also had to react.
So the seat belt requirement was supplemented by a fine in August 1984 (in the amount of 40 D-Marks, today it is 30 euros).
The effect was clear: as early as September, 92 percent of drivers were buckled up instead of 58 percent previously.
In the following year, the death toll fell rapidly, for the first time in a long time to a four-digit figure.
Acceptance: Where your own freedom ends
In 1986 the Federal Constitutional Court finally gave its blessing.
The interference with the freedom of action is proportionate because it also serves to protect others.
If you have an accident unbuckled, you can no longer help other accident victims.
Gradually, exceptions to the seat belt requirement were also removed: on the back seats of cars in 1984, in coaches in 1999, for taxi drivers in 2014. Parcel carriers are exempted to this day, as are tour guides and all occupants of public buses.
Overall, however, the seat belt rate is close to 100 percent.
"It took almost 30 years until the seat belt - by necessity - became commonplace in Germany," summarized Heike Bergmann in the magazine "Technikgeschichte" in 2009.
Long-term effects: Hundreds of thousands of lives saved
The status of the seat belt as the number one lifesaver for car occupants is undisputed today, way ahead of airbags, larger crumple zones or more stable car bodies.
The US Department of Transportation estimates that the belt saves around 15,000 lives a year in the United States alone.
Applied to Germany, a six-digit number should come together since the introduction of mandatory seat belts.
The accident research of the insurers blames the few remaining seat belt grouches for 200 deaths and 1,500 seriously injured persons per year.
The seat belt debate is over and almost forgotten - but much of it resonates in the vaccination debate.
Underneath is the realization that it can be a damn long way before it "clicks" for many people.