What is the danger with defective seat belts?

Seat belts are intended to minimize the injuries and damage caused in an accident. Seat belt injuries often occur when there is a seat belt design, production, or installation defect. There are a plethora of injuries that may occur as a result of a defective seat belt or from failure of a seat belt: spinal cord injury, brain or head injury, paralysis, internal injuries, amputations, broken bones, concussions and fatalities.

Seat belts that don’t work properly in both passenger and commercial vehicles involve everything from belt webbing that could be cut by another part rubbing against it, to buckles that seem to latch but don’t, to shoulder belts that might not retract.

There are believed to be two collisions in an auto accident. The first collision is the vehicle’s impact with another vehicle or object. The second collision is the passenger’s impact with the interior of the vehicle, or in cases of ejection, impact outside the vehicle. Seat belt injuries can occur when a defective seat belt fails to adequately protect a vehicle passenger in the “second collision” phase of an automobile accident.

In a lap belt only seat belt design, often found in the rear center seating position, occupants may jack-knife over the seat belt, receiving injuries in the process. The seat belt itself can cause spine or internal injuries when the occupant’s body bends over the seat belt webbing which then cuts into the soft tissue. Also, when the occupant’s body juts forward, head injuries can result when the head hits a seat back or a support pillar in the vehicle.

With a shoulder belt only design, often seen in Hyundai or Volkswagen vehicles, occupants may submarine under the belt, causing neck injuries and sometimes decapitation.

Passive restraint systems lull the occupant into a false feeling of safety when the shoulder belt slides around them. Passive restraint systems consist of a manual lap belt and a motorized shoulder belt, or are simply a door mounted three-point system.

For the first type, the manual belt combination, occupants often forget to latch the manual belt, creating a “shoulder belt only” system. Thus, much like the Hyundai and Volkswagen vehicles mentioned above, occupants may submarine under the belt. In the second type, the door mounted three-point system, if the door opens during an accident, the occupant can be ejected, often suffering horrific injuries or death.

Small stature persons are particularly susceptible to these types of injuries. The D-ring or shoulder strap anchor is typically placed in a position that is too high for a small stature person. As a result, the shoulder strap rides too high up on the occupants’ neck and causes severe spinal injuries in a collision. Auto manufacturers have been aware of this seat belt geometry defect for some time. Some of our clients have suffered catastrophic spinal cord injuries as a result of defective seat belt geometry design.

A seat belt must not only be designed and mounted properly, but must latch properly and stay latched to provide maximum protection. Seat belt latching defects leave the occupant open for the possibility of being unrestrained in an accident.

Inertial unlatching occurs when a seat belt buckle releases by itself during a collision. Inadvertent unlatching happens when the buckle opens as a result of some inadvertent contact by either the occupant or a component of the vehicle. Often a hand or arm contacts the release button causing an inadvertent unlatching.

Possibly the scariest of all seat belt buckle defects is false latching. This occurs when the buckle appears to be latched, sounds like it is latched and looks like it is latched, but is not actually properly or fully engaged. In this situation, forces during the accident can cause the buckle to unlatch. We recently dealt with this issue in a case against a trucking manufacturer and a seat belt manufacturer where the decedent was killed after he was ejected from the vehicle.

There are several other possible defects that can occur with seat belts:

  • the seat belt webbing can fail because of a defect within the webbing itself, or from a sharp item on the seat frame contacting the webbing during the collision;
  • the retractor can fail to lock properly in an accident and cause an injury by allowing excess webbing to extend;
  • a seat belt pretensioner, a device that removes excess slack from the seat belt webbing, could be missing from the design of the particular belt.

NOTE: You should not rely on the accident report alone to determine if there is a seat belt defect. Often police officers will say that there was no belt use if the occupant has been ejected or is not wearing the belt when the officers arrive on the scene. As stated previously, an occupant can submarine under a belt, the belt may unlatch on its own from inertia, or a first responder may have unlatched the occupant to administer lifesaving medical treatment. In short, don’t rely on the accident report alone to determine if there is a seat belt defect case.

Some of the most common signs of a potential seat belt failure or defect are:

  • An occupant who was believed to have been belted is found unbelted after the accident;
  • A belted occupant makes contact with the vehicle interior, resulting in injury;
  • The occupant is ejected outside the vehicle or outside the restraint of the seat belt, but the seat belt buckle is latched;
  • The webbing of the seat belt is loose after the accident;
  • The webbing of the seat belt is torn;
  • The door mounted seat belts in the vehicle were ineffective when the door of the vehicle opened;
  • The seat belt is only a lap belt or shoulder belt;
  • The vehicle occupant compartment is intact and a belted occupant is injured;
  • The seat belt mounts came loose from the floor or vehicle pillars during the accident.

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