In 2015, seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved the lives of an estimated 13,941 people, yet faulty buckle design and retractors can lead to fatal seat belt failures in the event of an auto accident.

Except When They Fail

The seat belt, a safety restraint that is currently required on all cars and light trucks, hasn’t been around forever.

First patented in 1885 to keep New York City tourists safe, the idea didn’t really catch on until the mid-1930s when several U.S. doctors recognized how seat belts could enhance safety and began urging manufacturers to include them in all cars. In 1966, American vehicles were required to have seat belts, but requiring drivers and passengers to wear them was a different story. But by 1995, every state but New Hampshire had a law on the books enforcing seat belt use, and currently, all states do.

Common Seat Belt Malfunctions

When seat belts operate properly, they save lives. In 2015, seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved the lives of an estimated 13,941 people, according to a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report.

But when seat belts don’t work properly due to mechanical failure, they can lead to serious injuries. Some common seat belt malfunctions include:

  • Inertial unlatching. When a seat belt unlatches during an auto accident. A well-designed latch should be held in the latched position to prevent unlatching when the back of the buckle is slapped by the wearer’s body. However, not all new cars feature seat belts with anti-inertial unlatching buckles.
  • False latching. When a seat belt looks like it is locked but pulls free with minimal force. False latching can result in a passenger being ejected from a moving vehicle or being seriously injured when striking the interior of a vehicle.
  • Faulty seat belt retractors. Seat belts that have too much slack and load too quickly can damage the belt’s webbing.
  • Seat belt durability. The quality of the material and weaving of the belt itself is key.

Faulty Seat Belts Lead to Injuries, Investigations, Recalls

Although there are no statistics regarding the exact number of people injured due to defective seat belts, there have been many accidents, investigations, recalls, and lawsuits stemming from seat belt failure.

Last week, the NHTSA announced that it is opening a preliminary investigation into whether seat belts on 2018 Volkswagen Tiguan SUVs could be prone to failure during a collision. December 2017 crash testing caused the webbing of the seat belt to completely separate, prompting the NHTSA to open the probe to determine whether the separation is a one-time incident or a more widespread issue.

In September 2017, the seat belt retractor on a 2015 Polaris Slingshot failed during a collision, resulting in the death of the driver, who was partially ejected from the vehicle, even though he was correctly wearing his seat belt.

The NHTSA opened an investigation into more than 300,000 Hyundai Sonata sedans in January 2017 after multiple accidents and at least one injury due to allegedly defective seat belt linkages. By October, Hyundai had issued a recall of nearly one million Sonatas because of the seat belt problem.

In 2014, a Pennsylvania jury awarded $55 million to a man who was paralyzed after the seat belt in his Acura Integra failed to prevent his head from striking the roof of his car after he lost control of the vehicle and it rolled over. In April 2017, a Pennsylvania Superior court upheld the verdict against Honda Motor Company.

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