In its January 2009 edition, SafetyBeltSafe News, published by SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. (SBS USA), called attention to two recent tragic cases where children were strangled by their shoulder belts. They are only the latest of a string of incidents that first came to light in 2005 and have been reported since by SBS USA, where children wrapped a shoulder belt around their necks in play or curiosity without realizing that the belt’s switchable retractor had been activated. In the most recent cases, a 5-year-old Maryland boy died in December and a 13-year-old Texas boy died last October. In most of the other cases collected so far, the child has been rescued by the quick action of cutting the seat belt webbing.
This topic is covered in the 2009 LATCH Manual, Chapter 3, due to its occasional connection to unused shoulder belts where CRs are installed with LATCH. The manual also addresses the guidance suggested by SBS USA that is being adopted by some vehicle and CR manufacturers. Note that this problem is not related to specific brands or models.
Such infrequent but serious incidents are due to shoulder belts with switchable retractors that children inadvertently pull out all the way and then wrap around their necks. Such seat belt retractors have been in most vehicles since the 1996 model year, when they were introduced as an effective method to improve installation of child restraints. Because of the many scenarios that have occurred and the wide range of ages involved, this is mainly a behavioral issue. SBS USA Executive Director Stephanie Tombrello points out that the involved parents she has spoken with have all said they were completely unaware of how shoulder belts lock and the potential hazard if their children play with the belts. Parents need this information in order to teach their children how and why not to play with any seat belt. This kind of incident can happen in cars with switchable retractor-equipped lap-shoulder belts when:
- an unused shoulder belt is within reach of the child—either because the child’s CR is installed with LATCH or the child is seated next to a position with an unused lap-shoulder belt. The lap-shoulder belt may be dangling unused from the ceiling in cases where a vehicle seat has been removed or when the center-rear shoulder belt is separate.
- the lap-shoulder belt is being used by the child with or without a booster.
Steps caregivers can take to prevent or minimize entanglement risk:
- Provide age-appropriate entertainment for children, such as soft toys, music, or a story on tape or CD. While driving, be as aware as possible of children’s behavior in the back seat.
- Make sure that the harness on the car seat is snug so that a fidgety or curious child cannot reach or pull out an unused shoulder belt.
- When the LATCH system is being used, keep the unused shoulder belt out of reach. General Motors brands, Chrysler brands, Honda/Acura, and Ferarri recommend fastening the seat belt behind the CR before installing it, so long as the belt buckle does not interfere with the LATCH installation. If the seat belt buckle or the LATCH attachments interfere with each other, unbuckle the seat belt after the LATCH system is tightened so the belt is trapped behind the CR. (See LATCH Manual, Appendix B.)
- If a child can reach an adjacent shoulder belt, it may be possible to buckle the belt and lock its retractor so the webbing can’t be pulled out.
- For children using belt-positioning boosters who are prone to playing with the belt, the switchable retractor can be engaged by the caregiver to keep the belt snug.
- Older children using lap-shoulder belts should be shown how the belt locks and made aware of the very serious nature of the potential problem. Make them part of the solution so they can educate their friends.
Please Help Us Collect Data on Entanglement Incidents
SRN, SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., and KidsAndCars.org are collaborating to collect data on cases of entanglement in vehicle seat belts, whether fatal or not. This will help us learn more about the extent and circumstances of such incidents and may lead to better interventions. We are working on a questionnaire that will be available on our websites to simplify integrating reports into the KidsAndCars.org database, which includes many other types of parked car and nontraffic- related incidents. Meanwhile, if you learn of a case, please send as much information as possible to:
E-mail (preferred): email@KidsAndCars.org
Fax: (913) 327-0014