Despite having ample headroom, the driver of this vehicle was rendered quadriplegic when her shoulder belt failed to properly lock and allowed her head to strike the windshield header during a rollover.
When it works properly, the seat belt is indisputably the most important safety device in an automobile. When it works poorly or when a sealtbelt completely fails to work, it can cause serious injury and even death.
Thanks in part to public service campaigns, such as the “buckle up for safety campaign,” as well as to mandatory seat belt use laws, Americans now buckle up in record numbers. Most of us trust that if we are involved in an accident, our seat belt will restrain us and protect us from injury. In other words, we expect our seat belts to work. Unfortunately, millions of vehicles on the road have defective seat belt systems, that are incapable of providing reasonable protection in otherwise survivable accidents. Many of these defects have been known to the auto industry for many years.
A typical auto crash can be viewed as having two collisions:
The second collision immediately follows, often only by milliseconds, the first collision. The purpose of a seat belt is to either prevent the second collision or minimize its injury-producing potential. A snug fitting lap and shoulder belt “ties” the occupant to the passenger compartment and allows him or her to “ride down” the crash, thereby minimizing or eliminating injurious occupant contact with the vehicle interior, such as the windshield, steering wheel or the roof.
In many instances, injury to a belted occupant is due simply to crash forces and the inescapable violence involved in car wrecks.
After all, seat belts cannot immunize us from injury in a collision. However, in a still significant number of cases, the injury would not have occurred but for a defect in the seat belt system.
Seat belts fail to restrain occupants due to both poor design and faulty manufacturing. Some of the more common defects include:
False latching occurs when the latch plate looks, feels and even sounds like it is latched when inserted into the buckle but is not fully engaged. Minimal amounts of force will cause a falsely latched buckle to completely release the latch plate. When a seat belt is falsely latched or becomes inertially unlatched, the occupant is essentially un-belted and unrestrained and moves as though he or she were never belted in the first place. Such occupants are frequently ejected or found un-belted inside the car.
Though the occupant was properly belted before the seat belt became unlatched, the police report will often list the occupant as being unrestrained. Cases involving inertial unlatching or false latching frequently arise when either a surviving occupant insists he or she was belted or when other occupants confirm that the deceased occupant was wearing a seat belt.
The seat belt of this vehicle ripped in half during a frontal collision. The occupant was rendered quadriplegic when she struck the steering column.
Torn or ripped webbing. When the seat belt tears or is ripped in half during an accident, something has probably gone terribly wrong. Seat belt webbing is designed to withstand the forces of most survivable collisions without ripping or tearing. Torn or ripped webbing might occur because of a defect or manufacturing flaw in the webbing itself, such as material or weaving deficiencies.
Ripped or torn webbing might also be the consequence of some other vehicle defect. Any seatbelt defect that allows excessive slack or payout of the webbing can cause the belt to be “snap-loaded” – loaded too rapidly, which can sever the webbing. Sharp or protruding edges of vehicle components can also cut through the seat belt. In one recent case, a bending belt anchor moved the belt into contact with a sharp seat support.
This seat belt was severed during a frontal collision when it came into contact with a sharp edge exposed on a front seat that deformed during the accident. The driver was left quadriplegic and brain damaged when he impacted the steering column.
Retractor failure. During an accident, the seat belt retractor “locks” the seat belt webbing and holds the occupant in place. When the retractor fails to properly lock, excessive webbing “pays” out of the retractor and results in seat belt “slack.” Sometimes as little as a few inches of “slack” can mean the difference between an injury-free event and catastrophic or fatal injuries. In a frontal collision, for example, a snug shoulder belt should restrain the occupant in the seat and prevent injurious contacts with the steering wheel and windshield. A slack or loosely fitting shoulder belt might allow the occupant to move forward and contact these objects.
(Left) Under normal driving conditions, the pendulum and lock bar are in
the rest position. The sprocket that holds the seat belt is free to rotate.
As the occupant leans against the webbing, the seat belt unreels.
(Right) During an accident, the pendulum tilts and forces the lock bar into the sprocket. The sprocket locks and the seat belt restrains the occupant.
Retractors can fail to lock because of design defects as well as auto manufacturing defects. One failure mode of certain “direct drive” retractors is a phenomenon known as “skip-lock” or “skipping” – which occurs when the retractor lock bar hits the tip of a ratchet tooth and bounces away instead of engaging the root of the tooth and locking the webbing. Auto manufacturers vehemently deny that skip-lock can occur, but it has been documented in the literature as well as in General Motors’ internal research projects.
Skip-lock or skipping occurs when the occupant begins to load the webbing but the lock bar fails to engage a sprocket tooth. During the skipping process, the lock bar will sometimes make contact with the tips of the sprocket teeth in what is known as a “tip to tip” condition. As the sprocket teeth skip over the lock bar, webbing “pays out” of the retractor resulting in seat belt slack. As little as a couple of inches of slack can result in catastrophic injuries. A close inspection of the teeth after an accident might reveal forensic evidence of skipping in the form of scrapes or small gouges on the tips of the teeth.
“Windowshade” devices. Most U.S. cars manufactured from the late-1970s to the late 1980s contained a “tension-relieving” device in the retractor, which, by design, introduces slack into the shoulder belt. These so-called “windowshade” devices operate much like a household windowshade – when the belt is pulled out of the retractor, the device engages and the belt remains in its new position.
One consequence of the windowshade design is the inadvertent formation of excessive amounts of seat belt slack. By design, windowshade retractors permit occupants to intentionally introduce slack into the shoulder belt. Occupants can also unknowingly introduce slack into the shoulder belt by moving forward to reach for the radio or other items. As mentioned, slack undermines the effectiveness of a seat belt in an accident and can result in severe head impacts with the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield.
In a car equipped with a windowshade device, the simple act of reaching over to the glove box can cause the inadvertent formation of large amounts of seat belt slack. This causes injury and death during an accident by allowing the occupant to strike portions of the vehicle interior with great force.
The large arc created by a floor-mounted belt anchor can cause excessive occupant excursion toward the roof during a rollover.
Poor seat belt geometry. Poor belt geometry can contribute to excessive occupant excursion, particularly in rollovers. The best location for seat belt anchors is on the seat itself, yet many vehicles have anchors located on the vehicle floor, often behind the occupant’s seat. The resulting shallow belt angle can permit excessive excursion toward the roof in a rollover. Poor D-Ring locations can also adversely affect geometry and belt effectiveness. Adjustable D-Rings have improved overall geometry but have only become popular in more recent vehicles.
Vehicle “system” failure. To be effective, seat belts must work in conjunction with the vehicle’s seats and surrounding structure. If the seats fail or there is significant roof crush or occupant compartment intrusion, seat belt effectiveness is reduced. In many accidents, occupants are injured or killed due to a combination of vehicle failures, such as excessive roof crush combined with inadequate restraint by the seat belt.
Door-mounted and other automatic belt systems. These systems pose a slew of safety risks, including occupant ejection when the door opens during a crash and severe spinal cord injuries when an occupant with an automatic shoulder belt forgets to put on the manual lap belt.
Lap-only belt designs. Though the benefits of utilizing a lap and shoulder belt have been known for decades, shoulder belts were not included in the rear seats of most U.S. cars until the late 1980′s. Lap-only belts can lead to fatal or catastrophic injuries, including head, spinal cord and other internal injuries.
Seat belt performance and potential effectiveness is highly dependent upon the facts of an individual accident. While it is difficult to generalize, the following facts, if present, might indicate a seat belt problem and could be reason to hire a seatbelt failure lawyer:
Evidence that a seat belt failed because of design or manufacturing defects is often subtle and can be difficult to detect. If a belt failure is suspected, the most important thing to do is preserve the vehicle and the seat belt system since it is extremely difficult to prove that a seat belt failed without the physical evidence.
In an interview with Ward Lucas of Denver’s 9News Jim Gilbert shared his opinion on the issues in the investigation into race legend Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death.
As a racing enthusiast and auto product liability attorney deeply involved in accident investigation, he believes a full faced helmet could have prevented the fatal injuries caused by the failure of a safety harness.
Earnhardt’s son was in a similar accident a week after his father’s and survived because his belt did not fail. Jim discounted a report by an investigator appointed by a Florida court that these safety features did not contribute to Earnhardt’s fatal injuries.
“What does the public take away from this? That seat belts don’t make a difference? They do, they make a tremendous difference.” -Jim Gilbert.
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