The inflatable seat belt: How it affects car seats and childrenMar 1, 2011 – from ConsumerReports.orgFord is offering inflatable seat belts for the outboard-rear-seat passengers as a new safetyequipment option on 2011 Explorers. The option will be available sometime between lateApril and late May, according to Ford. The technology does just as the name says—in acrash, a tubular airbag ―unzips‖ from the seams of the seat belt across the occupant’schest.The inflatable seat belts have two advantages: First, they spread the crash force over awider area of the body, potentially reducing the risk of injury to the chest. Second,deployment of the bag tightens the belt, reducing forward movement and reducing thepotential for head injury.Though we foresaw the potential advantages for all rear-seat passengers, as childpassenger safety technicians and parents we had some serious concerns. Were the airbagshot, once deployed, like front airbags are? Are the belts thicker, and if so, how is thatgoing to affect child-car-seat installation features such as belt lock-offs, which arealready sometimes difficult to use? How does the deployment of the bags affect a child ina child seat installed with the belts? How would the deploying belt affect a sleeping orslouching child seated very close to it?So we asked Ford these questions and we’re happy to report that many of our concernswere alleviated. Knowing more about the system set our minds at ease, and gave us morereason to believe that an inflatable belt does offer the potential for added protection torear seat passengers both young and old.Here’s what we learned: Ford has done extensive testing with the belts to confirm their potential to reduce crash forces and movement—reducing the potential for injury to the head and chest. The testing included child-sized and small adult dummies in a variety of positions that may be of concern, including simulated sleeping children, positions when the head is lying on the belts, and conditions where the belts were positioned under the arms. The belts inflate across the chest using compressed gas stored in a small canister. Once a small charge breaks the seal of the canister, the gas deploys the airbag. This is a cold gas system. It actually feels cold or cool to the touch, not hot, as a pyrotechnically charged front airbag system would be. The bag is designed to stay inflated for about 6 seconds, unlike a front-seat airbag which deflates immediately. As a result, the inflated belt offers the potential to maintain its benefits during longer crash events, such as rollovers. The inflatable belt is indeed thicker—two to three times the thickness of a traditional seat belt. As child passenger safety technicians, this was one of our greatest concerns, because we know how difficult some child car seat features like lock-offs can be, even with normal seat belts. The lock-off on most child seats is
designed to lock the lap belt from moving so that it holds the seat or infant seatbase securely. The key to the Ford inflatable belt system is that it is not acontinuous loop like most lap-and-shoulder belts. Instead, there are separate lapand shoulder belts attached to a specially designed latch plate (the piece thatpushes into the buckle). The shoulder belt and the lap belt each have their ownretractor system. This allows the lap belt to be locked from moving by pulling itout and switching the retractor beneath the cushion into ALR (automatic lockingretractor) mode. This is similar to the switch many parents use today to lock theshoulder portion of most vehicle belts when installing child restraints. The bigpotential advantage here is that the lockable retractor on the lap belt mayeliminate the need for the lock-off feature on some seats, making the seats easierto install. It also means that some child seat manufacturers may need to add ormodify instructions that would guide parents to use the belts correctly or modifylock-off designs so that seats could be installed without their use.