Seat Belt Technology

Vehicle safety features fall into two categories, active and passive. An active feature is one that helps the driver avoid collisions, i.e. Anti-lock braking systems. Passive features help reduce or prevent injuries sustained in collisions, i.e. airbags.


Airbags however, are sub-categorized as supplemental restraints. There is no device more effective in protecting automobile passengers from injury and death, than the primary restraints, seat belts.


Unfortunately, seat belt technology is sometimes confusing—the following may help you recognize important features which may be considered when choosing your next vehicle.


Emergency Locking Retractors allow occupants to move comfortably in their seats during normal driving, yet locks them into position in a collision. The retractors contain inertia reels which lock when pulled quickly (e.g. by the quick movement of an occupant’s body during a crash), but move freely when pulled slowly. There are also versions employing sensors, which lock only in the event of collision or vehicle roll-over.


Automatic Locking Retractors enable belts to lock into position for stable child-safety seat installation. To defeat the emergency locking retractors and activate this feature, extend the belt to its maximum length. A clicking sound may be heard as it retracts, and the belt is prevented from subsequent extension. The belt can then be locked around a safety seat, holding it into position. The belt is returned to normal function once it is fully retracted.


Pretensioners preemptively tighten belts, reducing dangerous occupant movement during collision. Sensors on the vehicle’s chassis trigger gas driven pistons to retract the belt. Deployment usually produces an explosive-like popping sound. Tightening the belt promotes occupant positioning which increases effectiveness of both belt and airbag. Tightening also reduces force created by occupant forward movement.


Force Limiters function like shock absorbers to cushion belt force against occupant bodies during collisions. Allowing the belt to give slightly can reduce traumatic internal injuries. Like Pretensioners, these require replacement after deployment.


Adjustable Shoulder Height allows the shoulder belt to be raised or lowered according to occupant height. Belts are more effective when positioned properly, as well as more comfortable—leading to greater usage.


The first U.S. Patent for a safety belt was granted to Edward J. Claghorn in 1885. Technology developments resulted from both automobile and aircraft usage. Saab was the first automobile manufacturer to offer seat belts as standard equipment in 1958. Belts became available in most new cars by the mid-1960s.


Despite wide availability and advancing technology, the biggest problem has always been usage. Fewer than 40% of American drivers used their belts in the mid-1980s. Today, usage is estimated at 82% (94.6% in California). Despite overwhelming evidence of their benefit, one in five drivers still refuses to use seatbelts. Below are myths dispelled by California Department of Motor Vehicles:


Myth: Seat belts can trap passengers inside their cars.
Reality: This scenario often involves a vehicle on fire, or in deep water. Most victims trapped inside cars however, were knocked unconscious while not wearing their seat belts. Conscious occupants can easily unlock belt clasps in less than a second.


Myth: Seat belts are good on long trips, but unnecessary while driving around town.
Reality: Half of all traffic fatalities occur within 25 miles of victims’ homes.


Myth: Some people are thrown clear in a crash, allowing them to walk away with hardly a scratch.
Reality: Survival rates are five times higher for passengers remaining inside their vehicles. People thrown “clear” are often hit and killed by other cars.


Myth: Securing children in safety equipment is too much hassle, especially when traveling short distances.
Reality: Automobile accidents are the number one preventable cause of death for children. Use seat belts and safety seats every time, as required by law.


Speaking of which, the fine for not wearing your seat belt can range from $78-$91 for a first offense, depending on county jurisdiction. Fines for subsequent offenses are approximately $190. The fine for not securing a child under 16 years of age is $340 for a first offense, $871 for subsequent violations.


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

  • Fines are effective deterrents for many drivers, who don’t appreciate the benefits of seat belt use
  • Seat belts reduce a person’s chance of dying in a crash by 50%
  • The average inpatient cost for treating unbelted crash victims is 55% higher than the cost for those belted.
  • Society pays an estimated $26 billion annually for injuries and death sustained by unbelted automobile passengers.


“Click it, or ticket… or worse!”


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