In that latter year, there was a tremendous first-lap pile-up in the Indy ‘500’ which eliminated eight cars and killed local favourite driver Pat O’Connor. Into 1959, guess what? Roll-over hoops – approaching the top of driver head-height, appear on the classical front-engined Indy roadsters. The cars themselves were still – due to their inherent dynamics – more or less an accident seeking somewhere to happen, but with belted drivers, head protected by roll-over hoops – the move was heading in the right direction.
European-style road racing lagged way behind USAC and the Speedway boys. Only rarely would any form of seat belt, even a mere lap strap, would be worn. The thinking was that when cars crash and overturn they too often catch fire. Would you prefer to be strapped into a burning car, or take your chance on being “thrown clear” and leaving it to burn on its own? The answer was almost universally, “I’d prefer to be thrown clear”. Many years later, into 1966-67, proper research confirmed that more serious injuries were caused through not wearing seat belts than from being retained within the car by wearing them. But through the 1950s into the 1960s no driver restraint systems were used at all, nor were they required by regulation.
It was in many ways the British Saloon Car Championship and similar competitions which really brought seat belts to the notice of the average racing driver. Lap belts, then lap and diagonals began to appear in Austin Westminster, Ford Zephyr and Jaguar saloons from quite early on through the mid-1950s. In 1963 the Aston Martin Project cars were equipped with seat belts for drivers like Innes Ireland, Bruce McLaren and Lucien Bianchi – but this was for drivers who had an eye upon – or had been involved in – American racing, in which seat belts were beginning to proliferate.