“Seat belts save lives”
“Click it or ticket.”
We’ve all heard the slogans and seen the campaigns urging drivers to wear seat belts. These public service announcements are well-founded and based on sound data: Seat belts are one of the most important and effective safety features vehicles have that can prevent serious injury or death. When properly used, seat belts can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45%, and can reduce the risk of critical injury by 50%.
Seat Belts Prevent “Second Collisions” and the Additional Injuries They Cause
In a motor vehicle collision, your car may crash into a barrier, another vehicle, a pedestrian, or some other hazard. Typically this results in damage to your vehicle and occupants.
However, many injuries to drivers and passengers are sustained during what is referred to as the ‘second collision.’ The second collision occurs during an accident when a vehicle occupant’s energy causes them to be carried forward and strike interior vehicle components like the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield. In extreme cases, a driver or passenger can even be ejected from the vehicle and onto the roadway where they may be hit by another vehicle.
One way seat belts help reduce the injuries sustained in an accident is they prevent vehicle occupants from being carried forward into vehicle structures or being thrown from the car or truck. Seat belts restrain passengers to avoid a second, third, and subsequent collisions caused by the differences in momentum between the vehicle and its occupants.
Unfortunately, seat belts are not perfect and mistakes in the design or manufacturing process can render then ineffective at preventing injuries. In other circumstances, defects in a safety restraint device can actually exacerbate injuries or cause fatalities.
How Can Seat Belts Be Dangerous?
There are two types of restraint belts commonly used in passenger vehicles:
- Three-point seat belts
- Lap belts
Three point seat belts, (lap/shoulder seat belts) have a strap across the pelvis and hip area, and a strap across the chest and shoulder. Lap belts, on the other hand, have only a single strap running across an occupant’s pelvis or hip region.
In the event of a car crash, a three point seat belt system will spread the force of the impact across the sturdy pelvic bones and throughout the upper torso, lessening the impact any one region of the body may experience. But with lap belts, the force of a car crash is localized to the pelvis and abdomen, creating a substantial risk of injury to the abdominal region and internal organs. Even though seat belts are supposed to protect you from serious injury, lap seat belts often cause severe and sometimes fatal injuries due to their unsafe design.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has spent decades trying to make it a mandatory requirement that all seats in passenger vehicles should be equipped with lap/shoulder seat belts instead of lap belts. A 1999 NHTSA report concluded that lap/shoulder belts are 25% more effective at preventing serious injuries and death in car accidents than lap-only belts, and offer considerably greater occupant protection in a front-end collision. In fact, the report stated that while backseat lap belts did reduce the risk of head injury in the event of a car accident, lap belts actually increased the risk of serious abdominal injury.
Automobile manufacturers have been aware of the serious injuries lap belts can cause for decades, but have continued to use them in order to avoid redesign expenditures. It wasn’t until 2007 that vehicles were required to have three point lap/shoulder seat belts for every seat, including the rear center seat. This means that cars which are only a few years old most likely have lap belts for rear center seats, placing occupants at a risk of serious injury and death.
Common Injuries Caused by Seat Belts
When a vehicle is involved in a front-end collision, the vehicle will slow down very rapidly, while the occupant’s body continues to move forward. A lap belt will hold the occupant’s pelvis and abdomen in place, but the occupant’s upper and lower body will be propelled forward.
This can cause the person’s body to “jackknife,” where the torso and legs are thrown forward violently. This can result in injuries to internal organs, including:
- Organ Rupture
- Bowel Perforation
- Bowel and Organ Dissection/Separation
- Herniated Organs
- Internal Bleeding
- Vertebral Dislocation
- Fractured Vertebrae
- Lumbar Spine Fracture
- Spinal Cord Laceration/Compression
- Spinal Cord Injury
These conditions are often referred to as “seat belt syndrome.”
Because the upper body is not restrained when a lap-only seat belt is used, there is virtually no protection for an occupant’s head and neck. This can lead to:
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Closed/Open Head Injury
What Can Fail on a Seat Belt and Cause an Injury?
Seat belts work in several different ways. During a Philadelphia car accident, a car usually decelerates, or slows down, very quickly. However, while forces act to slow down the vehicle, the bodies of the vehicle occupants will continue moving forward at the original rate of speed until some other force acts. In the worst case scenario after a vehicle ejection, the ground will stop the ejected passenger – but not without inflicting serious or fatal injuries. In other scenarios, the passenger hitting the steering column some other aspect of the vehicle is what brings the vehicle occupants’ bodies to an abrupt and painful halt.
By contrast, a seat belt works by holding your body in the seat. In doing so, it prevents vehicle occupants from flying forward, perhaps through the windshield, thereby reducing your risk of serious injury.
Three-point harness systems are now standard in all modern vehicles and offer greater safety protection than lap belts alone. While a three-point or shoulder belt supports the chest and shoulders which minimize head movement during a crash, lap belts do not. Individuals who use a lap belt only are significantly more likely to experience injuries like whiplash or a traumatic brain injury.
How Do Seat Belts Function During a Car or Truck Accident?
Most seat belts have retractor systems, where the seat belt material, or webbing, is connected to a spool that winds up any loose webbing and adjusts to the size of each passenger. In the event of a car accident, a retractor locking system is engaged, by either the car’s movement or the seat belt’s movement, preventing the seat belt webbing from letting out any slack. The locking mechanism holds passengers firmly against their seat, and prevents them from moving forward.
Some seat belt systems use a pretensioner along with a retractor and locking mechanism. Whereas a retractor & locking system will prevent any more webbing from being released from the seat belt spool, a pretensioner will actually pull webbing back into the spool, and wind up any slack in the seat belt during a car accident. Pretensioners are usually triggered by the same sensors that trigger a vehicle’s airbag.
What are Common Causes of Seat Belt Failures?
While seat belts are extremely valuable safety devices, they are not without flaws or faults. One of the problems that can impact the efficacy of seat belts are product defects. Defects can be introduced during the design or manufacture of a device and can include:
- Faulty material used for the seat belt webbing, resulting in tearing
- Poor or defective design: mounting the seat belt anchor to the car ceiling, which could break or bend in the event of a vehicle rollover
- Manufacturing and assembly errors and defects
- Accidental or inertial unlatching of the buckle: flying objects or body parts (like your elbow) can unlock buckle, or the sheer force of the collision can cause buckle to unlatch
- False latch: when a latch plate looks, feels and sounds as though it has been inserted into the buckle, but the lock is not actually secured and a slight amount of force will unlatch the seat belt
- Seat belts detaching from their anchor points and mount
- Retractor error permitting too much slack or spooling out
- Lack of or failure of seat belt pre-tensioner
- Lack of three-point harness, or lap belt only design (typically found in older model vehicles)
In other scenarios, vehicle manufacturers may fail to provide certain warnings regarding the use of seat belts or seating positions by children or when a child seat is installed.
What Happens When a Seat Belt Fails?
Seat belt defects and failures can cause catastrophic and often fatal injuries. In many instances, accidents sustained in a vehicle crash are serious and change an innocent victim’s life forever. The most common injuries resulting from seat belt failure are often inflicted on the neck, head, chest, arms, and legs. A serious injury to any f these body parts can result in permanent disability.
Furthermore, when a seat belt fails to restrain someone in a head-on collision, the person can be catapulted forward through the windshield and ejected from the car. In most cases of vehicle ejection, injuries are catastrophic or fatal. People who are ejected from their vehicle during an auto collision are more likely to sustain spinal cord and neck injuries resulting in paralysis, paraplegia, quadriplegia, or death. Seat belt defects can also cause strangulation when there is too much slack in the belt, like when a retractor fails or if a car is not equipped with a pretensioner system.
Recent Seat Belt Recalls
Every year auto manufacturers issue thousands of vehicle recalls for faulty or defective seat belts. Over 8 million vehicles have been recalled for using Takata seat belts, which have a danger of unlatching and failing to lock properly. Takata seat belts have been used by Honda, Mazda, Ford, Mitsubishi, Subaru, General Motors, Chrysler, and others. Similarly, the Gen3 seat belt, used in millions of Chrysler vehicles, has been cited in hundreds of claims of inadvertent unlatching or accidental release and has been linked to at least 26 deaths.
Other recent seat belt defects include a May 2016 recall where Nissan recalled more than 4 million vehicles. The defect was actually comprised of a sensor issue in certain vehicles and a deformed front passenger seat belt bracket in other vehicles. Similarly, in September 2016, GM recalled more than 4 million cars and trucks due to a software glitch that could cause airbags and seat belts to fail.
If You Were Hurt By Defective Seat Belts, Our Personal Injury Lawyers May Be Able to Help
If you or a loved one was injured by a defective and dangerous seat belt or if you believe a manufacturing defect or flawed seat belt design caused injuries to you or a loved one, the experienced Pennsylvania auto product liability attorneys and seat belt defect lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm can help you determine who is at fault for your injuries. Our team of highly experienced attorneys is firmly committed to advocating for your rights and protection as consumers. We believe that safety, not profits, should always be an auto manufacturer’s top priority.
If you have been hurt by a defective seat belt, you may be entitled to financial compensation to help you with medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and rehabilitation costs. For over 36 years, attorney Jeffrey Reiff and the lawyers of The Reiff Law Firm have successfully represented catastrophically injured victims who were injured due to defective products, and have successfully litigated against some of the world’s top auto manufacturers to recover hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of our catastrophically injured or wrongfully killed clients and their families. To schedule a free and confidential consultation at our Philadelphia law offices call (215) 246-9000 today.