First patented in 1885, seat belts are a worldwide staple of safety for automotive travelers. In many cases, seat belts are the single most important safety feature during an accident. It is estimated that seat belts save $50 billion annually by reducing accident-related expenses such as medical treatment and lost wages. While the thought of this crucial tool failing during an accident is alarming, manufacturer defects occasionally cause seat belts to fail. These rare but dangerous situations have unfortunately caused many injuries and taken countless lives.
Seat Belt Design
The most common seat belt design today is the three-point model, which consists of a belt and a buckle that form three endpoints when secured. One endpoint is located above the passenger’s shoulder and on both sides of the person’s hips. The belt straps diagonally across a passenger’s chest to support the torso during collision. This portion of the belt is referred to as the sash.The lap portion of the belt stretches across the passenger’s hips or waist.
Lap-only seat belts are a more outdated seat belt design. Lap-only seat belts are two-point and do not offer the sash component. Since lap-only belts lack torso support, passengers wearing these belts are more likely to sustain internal injuries from an accident. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that victims may file lawsuits to seek damages even where lap-only seat belts adhered to federal safety regulations.
Common Types of Seat Belt Failure
This can be difficult to detect. Latch failure, or inertial unlatching, can still occur after the seat belt “clicks” and appears properly latched. Often, tugging on the seat belt will further indicate that the latch is secure. However, when high-impact forces are exerted on the latch during a collision or sudden stop, the buckle can separate from its connection. This can cause serious injury or death, and can lead to a victim being ejected from the car.
Faulty Latch Plate
The latch plate is the flat metal piece attached to the belt that is inserted into the buckle and clicks into place. In most seat belt models, the latch plate is adjustable. It slides up and down the belt to allow passengers to adjust the seat belt according to their size. Faulty latch plates can completely detach from the belt or buckle, leaving the passenger defenseless in the case of a collision.
The belt itself is made with webbing, a strong material designed to withstand high-impact forces. Occasionally, the webbing can suffer design flaws that cause it to rip apartduring an accident. In some cases, sharp edges or surfaces may protrude from the car’s frame, also contributing to torn webbing.
Retractor Failure:A retractor is typically comprised of a spool that winds up loose webbing.This allows the seat belt to fit the size of the passenger and eliminates extra slack in the belt. During an accident, the retractor is the mechanism that “locks” the belt in place. Upon locking, the passenger is firmly secured in the seat and protected from launching forward. If the retractor fails, excess slack is available during impact. This makes the passenger vulnerable to the dangerous forces of the collision.
Tips to Avoid Seat Belt-Related Injuries
While a traveler cannot avoid accidents due to manufacturer defect, there are precautions that can help ensure the seat belt is used properly and safely. Seat belt safety tips include:
Wearing a seat belt that is fitted the right way. It is important that travelers do not place the sash of the belt behind their back. If the sash does not cross the center of a child’s shoulder, he or she must be placed in a car seat.
Checking to ensure the webbing is not worn-out. Any minor tearing may result in complete failure under high-impact collision.
Testing buckle strength by tugging firmly on the buckle after it has been secured.
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