In a recent interview, Tesla founder Elon Musk gives a historical reference as example of slow government reaction to public harm:

At 8m15s:

Take something like seatbelts. It was known for, I dunno, a decade or more that seatbelts would have a massive impact on safety, and save so many lives and serious injuries, and the car industry fought the requirement to put seatbelts in tooth and nail. That's crazy. And, I-dunno, hundreds of thousands of people probably died because of that.

Is the magnitude order of victims (whether in the US or worldwide) - hundreds of thousands - correct here?

  • Additional question: When did govt start discussing the mandatory seat belt laws, and how long and how much money did car manufacturers spend to fight the idea of being required to add seatbelts to their car productions? Nov 14, 2019 at 6:46
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    I am not convinced that this is a claim that Musk would try to defend given the opportunity - he seems to come up with the estimate on the spot, and indicates he isn't sure of the figures. This would appear to lack notability.
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 14, 2019 at 8:56
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    He literally says that he doesn't know. "I don't know how many people died, maybe hundreds of thousands" is not really a notable claim.
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2019 at 10:07
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    @J.Doe The interview and the person are notable, but I think it doesn't qualify as a claim. He doesn't claim to know.
    – gerrit
    Nov 14, 2019 at 10:25
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    @J.Doe: We don't answer general curiosity questions here. There are too many of them to justify the time. The only reason I am not closing this is you already have an answer.
    – Oddthinking
    Nov 14, 2019 at 10:33

1 Answer 1


It would help to see the text of the interview, or at least a clear statement of the claim. Your phrasing "He claims that would have caused hundreds thousands of deaths (not clear, US or worldwide)." is ambiguous as to what "it" refers to, and you phrased it as a counterfactual (something that didn't happen), but if "it" refers to "The government taking ten years to institute laws requiring seat belts", that (presumably) is something that definitely happened.

Taking the claim to be "The government taking ten years to institute laws requiring seat belts caused hundreds of thousands of deaths", and taking "hundreds" to mean "at least 200", that is almost certainly false for the US, but plausible for worldwide.

Seat belts are the single most effective safety technology in the history of the automobile. A NHTSA study of lives saved by vehicle technologies found that, between 1960 and 2012, seat belts saved more lives—329,715, to be exact


If that rate is constant, that's ~66k/decade, which is off by a factor of three. Add in the fact that they are probably biased to overestimating the number of lives saved, and the fact that not all of those are due to laws (many people would have used seat belts if there weren't a law), and it's likely lower. Theoretically, there could have been a much higher number for the sixties, but it's highly unlikely.

Looking at this graph, there has been a general trend since 1967 for car deaths to go down. From 1967 to 1977, deaths went from 52,924 to 49,510, but the cumulative decrease is once again ~30k. Theoretically, it could be that the death toll would have risen without seat belts, and thus this underestimates how much the death toll would have decreased in the decade before 1968, but it's more likely that it overestimates the amount (there are likely other factors that cause the decrease).

Both of these are only rough indicators, but as they would have to be off by a factor of three to six for the claim to be true, this is strong evidence against it.

Worldwide, on the other hand, the US was about 1/17 of the world population in 1967. So the claim isn't outside the realm of possibility, although I don't know what how traffic deaths compared to the US, or when other countries implemented seat belt laws.

PS At least for the US, I'm pretty sure that "security" is not standard as part of the term for seat belts.

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    Seat belt usage did not become mandatory in (West-)Germany until 1984, but were of course also used earlier without being required. The usage rate is said to have increased from 60% to 90% at that time. Looking at the traffic death tolls for each year in the 80ies, there is no obvious deviation in 1984 from the otherwise more or less steady decrease of traffic deaths. Nov 14, 2019 at 15:42
  • @Tor-EinarJarnbjo seat belt use still isn't mandatory in the United States. Each state's law is different and New Hampshire does not require adults to where belts. Many other states prohibit police from stopping someone for simply not wear a belt.
    – DavePhD
    Nov 14, 2019 at 15:58
  • "biased to overestimating the number of lives saved", but it might be the other way too. Just because seat belts were mandated, it doesn't mean that most people started using them right away, especially in the USA, where there is a natural resistance to government-imposed rules. Anecdotally, in 1971 I myself hitch-hiked from Ontario to Florida and back. Of the 69 rides on the trip, only 3 of the drivers were wearing seatbelts, and all 3 were in Canada. One driver even told us that he had paid to have the belts removed from his car so that he couldn't be accused of not using them. Nov 15, 2019 at 1:38
  • @Tor-EinarJarnbjo: You may be looking at the wrong numbers. Mandatory seat belt use was introduced for passengers in the front row in 1976. Initially, violation was not fined, which was changed in 1984. Also in 1984, the rule was extended to passengers in the back row. If you compare the numbers of traffic deaths in Germany in the 1970s to the 1980s, you'll notice a massive decrease.
    – Schmuddi
    Nov 15, 2019 at 8:26
  • @Schmuddi I just checked the seat belt history on Wikipedia, the article may be incomplete. You are right that there is a massive decrease in the traffic deaths from 1970 to 1980, but a much lower yearly decrease than between 1950 and 1970 and in the same ballpark as from 1980 to 1989. There was a significant increase again in traffic deaths in 1990 and 91 after the reunification, so numbers after 1990 are not directly comparable with those before. Nov 15, 2019 at 8:33

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