The national average for seat belt use is at a high of 71%. The increased use of the safety restraints come after a $3.7 million campaign called "Click It or Ticket." This program used paid advertising from public and private funds that warned communities that law enforcement would be out in force looking for violators of seat belt laws. These statistics are promising when reviewing the facts that in 1999 more than 32,000 drivers and passengers were killed in automobile crashes with an estimated 9,553 lives that could have been saved had seat belts been used. But these statistics don’t show the other side of things, the number of people injured or killed because of defective seat belts. This year alone a number of car companies have recalled their automobiles due to defective seat belts.

The "lock for latch" seat belt design has been attributed to a safer design feature that will stay fastened while buckles lacking the feature will not. Mounting evidence has indicated that some seat belts appear to be more prone to failing during crashes than other belts. There are several different explanations that have been offered regarding seat belt failures.

Inertial latching can occur when the seat belt becomes unlatched during a collision by inertial forces. The latch plate pulls out of the buckle leaving people susceptible to further injury in accidents. Because false latching occurs, vehicle occupants can be thrown from the car despite wearing the seat belt.

The purpose of wearing a seat belt is so that it can prevent or minimize what is called the second collision. A second collision is when an occupant of the car makes impact with the interior of the vehicle or is ejected and then hits the ground. The first collision is the point when the vehicle makes an impact with another vehicle or object. Typically these two types of collisions occur when there is an accident involving vehicles. The combination of the lap belt with the shoulder belt is designed to keep the occupants within a certain area in order to prevent or minimize the injuries that can result from a crash. By wearing a seat belt it is hoped that the occupants will not endure a fatal second collision by impacting the interior of the vehicle like the windshield, steering wheel, or the roof of the vehicle.

Defective seat belts may not properly restrain occupants of a vehicle due to poor manufacturing or design. Inertial unlatching is a term referring to a seat belt becoming unlatched during a collision. There have been warnings in the past against using buckles with no "lock-for-the-latch" design on seatbelts because they are more susceptible to inertial unlatching. Inertial unlatching causes the latch plate to pull out of the buckle.

False latching is also a defective seat belt buckle problem that will occur because the buckle appears to be closed but is not. When a collision occurs with false latching the person becomes free from the movement of their body instead of being restrained by the seat belt. There is safety standards regarding false latching that require buckles that are false latched must pull free at less than five pounds of pull. This will not withstand a simple pull on the belt to ensure it is properly latched. The results of a defective seat belt because of false latching can cause occupants to be ejected out of the vehicle or around the inside.

In some cases, after an accident occurs, the condition of the seat belt will be ripped in half. The durability of a seat belt is intended to withstand an accident, but in instances where the seat belt has not, this may have been the result of a defect or a manufacturing flaw in the material or weaving. Some vehicles that give too much seat belt slack can allow the belt to load too quickly and disable some of the webbing.

When the brakes are applied during an accident the seat belt retractor will lock the seat belt webbing so that the passengers are not flying around the interior of the vehicle. A retractor that does not lock during an accident can result in seat belt slack, resulting in an occupant to move around because they are not secured to the seat. Depending on the amount of slack there is, the passenger can be seriously injured by the objects they come into contact with. These defects can be attributed to manufacturing problems and problems in design.

After an accident, especially when serious injuries have resulted, it is not always clear that a seat belt failure has occurred. Some cases of safety restraints failing are not obvious because a small design or manufacturing defect could have caused larger problems.

Restraint News Articles

October 6, 2000, Defective Seat Belts

Ford and General Motors 2000 model-year vehicles had more than 300,000 vehicles recalled because of safety concerns with the seat belt buckle latches. The seat belts may not properly restrain vehicle occupants during a crash. Ford vehicle’s that are affected by defective seat belts are selected Explorer SUVs, Ranger pickups, F-150 pickups, Lincoln Town Cars, Escorts, Mountaineers, Mercury Villager vans, Ford Contour, and Mercury Mystique sedans and Windstar vans.

Affected General Motors models of cars that are affected by defective seat belts include selected Buick Century, Chevrolet Lumina and Impala sedans, Monte Carlo couples, Chevy Blazer SUVs, Chevy Venture minivans, GMC Jimmy SUVs, Oldsmobile Intriguq sedans, Olds Silhouteete minivans, Olds Barvada SUVs, Pontiac Grand Prix sedans, Pontian Montana minivans and Saturn L-Series vehicles.

The defective Ford and General Motors seat belts were manufactured by TRW, Inc, and said that latch assemblies were improperly heat-treated, which made them weaker than specified federal rules. TRW and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they did not know of injuries as the result of the defective seat belts. Florida official are investigating a flipped Ford Explorer that resulted in the death of a young woman in September.

The deceased woman had just been married a few hours prior to her death when the Ford Explorer flipped over after being rear-ended. The bride’s lawyer claims her seat belt ripped apart near the buckle and while the groom’s seat belt stayed fastened his seat broke and he was thrown from the vehicle. Ford claims that the car did not contain a defective seat belt.

General Motors said they have sent out letters alerting owners and dealers of the problem and Ford claims they will do the same by the end of the month.

December 17, 1999, Some Seat Belt Buckles Safer Thank Others

Manufactures are not willing to make information public regarding seat belt buckles that are more prone to fail during crashes. Consumers are unable to make the distinction between safer safety belt models and what type of seat belt is in their vehicles until the information becomes available to the public. The "lock for the latch" seat belt buckle design helps to prevent buckles from opening during a crash and have been confirmed by tests performed by experts in the field of their safeness.

Because seat belts become released during a crash it is hard to statistically tell how many people are killed or injured every year due to their seat belt buckle. Inertial unlatching is a term that has been publicly dismissed by automakers and the U.S. government but is an obvious danger to many people. Patent literature, dating back to as early as 1952, shows the repeated warnings of the dangers of inertial unlatching. A patent from 1967 warned that seat belt buckles should be "positive locking" and not just "spring held". In 1982 a patent was added by General Motors that said a properly designed latch should be physically blocked in the latched position to prevent unlatching by inertia forces acting on the vehicle body. The anti-inertial unlatching features are still not used in all seat belt buckles in new cars.