Design Affects Function
Auto engineering experts define two stages to any accident. The first phase of any crash comes with the primary impact, when the car comes into contact with another vehicle or an object, like a tree or barrier. The second phase can occur simultaneous to the first phase, or directly after, when the occupants collide against features or objects inside the vehicle's interior, or are ejected from the vehicle entirely and collide with features of the environment outside the vehicle.
Seat belts show their true value during the second phase of an accident, by holding vehicle occupants in place and preventing them from colliding with objects inside the vehicle. Seat belts also reduce the risk that a vehicle occupant will be ejected from the car or truck.
Defective Car Components Claim Lives
More than any other safety feature, properly-working seat belts have an enormous potential to save lives. In 2016, researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate, nearly 15,000 lives were saved by using restraints, seat belts. Far more lives could be saved if every seat belt worked as intended. Unfortunately, seat belts can fail, often due to design or manufacturing defects. According to Peter Kent at StreetDirectory.com, an estimated 10,000 additional automobile deaths every year can be attributed to seat belt failure.
While statistics on the subject do not exist, we can expect that thousands of other victims are left with severe injuries due to a defective seat belt. In fact, some statistics place the number of seat belt-related injuries as high as 3 million, on an annual basis. Seat belt-related deaths and injuries are astoundingly common. They can also be severe, leaving victims with life-long disabilities. In tragic cases, families can be left grieving a lost loved one due to a seat belt failure.
Legal Action Following A Failure
Thankfully, seat belt manufacturers and auto makers can be held accountable for supplying consumers with defective seat belts. According to America's strong tradition of product liability, seat belt makers and vehicle companies have a legal obligation to ensure, prior to a crash, that the seat belts used in our cars work as intended.
When seat belts fail to work as we expect, leading to severe injuries or death, injury victims and their families have the right to file a lawsuit for financial damages. If you or a loved one were injured due to a defective seat belt, you may be eligible to sue the seat belt's manufacturer, along with the vehicle's manufacturer, for valuable and significant compensation.
Types Of Seat Belt Failure
While seat belt manufacturers have converged on a standard design for their products, there are still a myriad of designs out there, some of which work better than others. Accident experts have identified a wide range of potential seat belt failure mechanisms:
- Inertial Unlatching - In simple terms, inertial unlatching occurs when the seat belt mechanism releases during an accident. The latch plate, which fits into the buckle, detaches, disconnecting the belt and leaving a passenger or driver unprotected. Seat belts without a locking latch plate are more prone to this form of failure than newer designs. Accident engineers, including those at Experts.com, theorize that intertial unlatching occurs when the forces created by an accident resonate inside the buckle's spring mechanism, thus unlatching the seat belt. Inertial unlatching is still a "disputed phenomenon," mechanical engineer John Ryan writes; car manufacturers say that, in the real world, inertial unlatching is impossible.
- False Latching occurs when the latch appears to be buckled, but is not. This can occur due to user error, or due to internal friction inside the locking mechanism itself. False latching can also happen when there is an additional slot for the latch to enter, adjacent to the actual locking mechanism. When a passenger is falsely latched, rather than properly latched, they are at risk of being ejected from the vehicle in the event of a crash.
- Accidental Release - Some seat belt mechanisms are easier to unlatch than others. In the event of a crash, seat belts can come unlatched when jostled by the passenger's elbow or hip. Accidental release can be a sign of poor seat belt design.
- Webbing Failure - The seat belt's webbing, the strap that extends from the shoulder to the hip or across the lap, must be strong and free of defects to work properly. Manufacturing defects can leave seat belt webbing vulnerable to tears or breaks, which can become fatal in the event of an accident. Dynamic forces can make the problem worse. If the seat belt has not retracted correctly, and slack remains in the line, the force of an occupant moving forward can snap the belt's webbing, leading to a seat belt failure.
- Retractor Failure - For seat belts to work as intended, the webbing strap must pull taut against an occupant's body during a crash. Most cars now feature an automatic retractor, which pulls the seat belt taut against the body when an impact occurs. As we've seen, slack in the seat belt can lead to a webbing failure, which occurs when the seat belt's webbing snaps under the force of a moving body. It can also leave the driver or passenger vulnerable to secondary impact injuries, as the body is thrown against features inside the car's interior.
In order to better understand a crash and develop evidence, personal injury attorneys will retain the services of an experienced mechanical engineer to investigate the remnants of a seat belt after the crash.
Some older seat belt designs are inherently dangerous. Seat belts that feature only a lap belt, for example, present known risks of internal injury, spinal damage and death. There is evidence that automakers hid the risks of this particular design for at least 20 years, refusing to update their seat belts with shoulder webbing until the late 1980s.
Shoulder-only belts also pose their own risks. Without a lap belt to prevent downward motion, the body can slide down, underneath the shoulder belt, in the event of an impact. At this point, the occupant is not properly restrained, since their legs are directly impacting parts of the vehicle. As the shoulder belt draws taut, it becomes a hazard, potentially strangling occupants at the neck or leading to a severe back injury.
Faulty Seat Belt Recalls
Ford Recalls 2 Million F-150 Trucks Over Seat Belt Fire Risk
Ford has recalled around 2 million F-150 pickup trucks, citing a problem with the truck's seat belt. The problem lies in the seat belt's pretensioner, a component that uses explosives to force the seat belt clip downwards, automatically pulling the seat belt tight in the event of a crash.
"Ford's investigation," the company said in a press statement, "found that some front seat belt pretensioners can generate excessive sparks when they deploy." These sparks have caused fires when they catch on the car's insulation or carpeting.
Ford has received at least 23 reports of smoke or fire coming from F-150 seat belts. In some cases, the fires have been catastrophic. While no injuries have yet been reported, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received at least 3 reports in which a vehicle was entirely consumed by flames after a faulty pretensioner mechanism fired.