For most parents, seat belt use has become second nature. We rarely think of these safety devices as a danger to our children, but the unused seat belts in your back seat can quickly turn into a strangulation hazard. Kids can get the belts wrapped around their necks or other body parts, and when they do it is not a simple matter of unlatching the belt and freeing them. The problem is with the locking retractor used in most passenger seat belts since 1996, but there are some things you can do to minimize the risk.
How it Happens
The stories of seat belt strangulation are horrific. One minute everything is fine, and the next a parent sees their child with the seat belt or multiple belts, wrapped around their neck, and unable to breathe. When they pull over and try to free the child, they can get no slack in the belt and nothing works. The only way to release the child is to cut the belt.
It happens when a child playing with the seat belt unknowingly activates the locking mechanism in the retractor. The purpose of the locking feature is to make car seat installation safer, but there are unintended consequences. Once the belt is locked, you cannot pull it out to create slack when it is needed.
First, everyone should keep a seat belt cutter in their car for this type of emergency and others.
Second, when you put your child in the car, you can lock the seat belt in a position that prevents your child from playing with the belt and getting tangled. To do this, you latch the unused shoulder belt and pull it all the way out. Then slowly feed it back in, leaving the belt latched. This should lock the belt so that your child cannot pull the belt out until it has been unlatched again.
This technique only works with locking belts, and it is not a replacement for closely supervising your child.
Finally, and most importantly, never leave your children unattended in a vehicle, and make sure they cannot climb into your car when they are outside playing. Do teach your children not to play with seat belts, but don’t assume that they never will. It only takes one incident for your child to be permanently injured or killed.