Making Safety Belts Safe

Everyone should wear their seat belt in a car, but everyone should also know that some seat belts are more safe than others. In some circumstances, the design of the less safe seat belts can even cause an injury.

An unnecessary risk of severe injury exists with lap-only belts as opposed to lap-shoulder belts. The problem with lap belts is that, when used by themselves, these belts tend to ride up over the hips and hold the occupant by the waist. This is particularly true with small children.

In a frontal collision, the upper body may be thrown forward with great force. If the lap belt is on the waist, it increases the likelihood of severe abdominal and spinal cord injuries. The Institute for Injury Reduction estimates that 1,200 severe or fatal injuries are being caused or aggravated by lap-only belts in use in the rear seats of our cars.

A 1989 law now requires that all new cars be equipped with lap-shoulder belt systems in the rear as well as the front seats. Unfortunately, this still leaves some 140 million older cars on the highway with only lap belts in the rear seats where children usually ride.

A temporary solution is to make sure that these lap belts stay securely on the hips. A better solution is to retrofit your car with a lap-shoulder belt system. Some manufacturers do make retrofit kits available, but they do not adequately publicize it. Many of their dealers are even unaware of this option. The retail installation cost is usually $150 to $200.

Automobile manufacturers have known of the lap-only belt hazard for decades. Cars which were sold in America with only lap belts were often designed to accommodate lap-shoulder belts. This unused safety feature existed so that these cars could also be sold in Europe where lap-shoulder belts have been required for years. For this reason many consumer groups are now demanding that automobile manufacturers recall older cars and replace or retrofit lap belts with lap-shoulder belt systems. It is estimated that this could be done for as little as $50 per vehicle.

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