Statistically, it has been proven that wearing a seat belt while traveling in a motor vehicle saves lives. However, wearing a seat belt alone does not ensure the safety of drivers and passengers involved in a crash. And at rare times, the seat belt itself may cause further injury. While the majority of seat belt injuries are minor -- and even expected especially in serious high-impact crashes -- some injuries caused by seat belts can be serious. This article looks at how seat belt injuries occur, how they can be prevented, and legal issues that can be raised around these kinds of injuries.
How Seat Belt Injuries Occur
In a collision, an automobile comes to a sudden stop, requiring a seat belt to restrain a still-moving driver or passenger. While a seat belt may indeed prevent severe injury when it is worn properly and functions as intended, it is entirely possible that the seat belt itself can cause injury to a driver or passenger. Based upon the severity of the accident or due to exceptionally tight restraints, seat belt malfunction, improper placement of the belt on the body, or manufacturer defect, a seat belt injury may occur.
Types of Seat Belt Injuries
Most seat belt injuries are minor and involve bruising and scrapes from restraints, depending on the severity of the collision. Generally, lap belts are responsible for internal injuries to the abdomen and spinal cord, while shoulder belts often result in injuries to the shoulder, neck and sternum. The most severe injuries that can be caused by (or exacerbated by) seat belts include fractures, dislocations, internal bleeding, spine injuries, and intestinal injuries.
Preventing Injuries Through Proper Seat Belt Placement
Proper placement of a seat belt on a vehicle occupant is one of the keys to the prevention of seat belt-related injuries. According to the National Highway and Safety Administration (NHTSA):
- The shoulder belt should be placed across the middle of your chest and away from your neck
- The lap belt should be placed firmly across your hips and below your stomach
- Never place the shoulder strap behind your back or under your arm, especially merely out of desire for comfort.
- No belt should ever be uncomfortably tight or so loose as to allow the occupant to freely move about in the seat.
For more information on proper positioning and placement of a seat belt -- as well as information specifically geared toward seat belt safety for children and expectant mothers -- see the National Highway and Safety Administration website at www.nhtsa.gov.
Legal Issues Related to Seat Belt Injuries
Defective Seat Belts. Many seat belt injuries are caused by defects in the seat belt restraint system itself -- meaning that the seat belt did not perform as expected because of a flaw in its design, or a mistake in the manufacturing process.
A few examples of these kinds of defects include defective latches or defective tension detectors. A defective latch may cause the seat belt to detach through the force or angle of impact in a collision. Defective tension detectors may fail to remove slack in the belt, or fail to keep a belt taut after any slack is removed.
Insufficient Seat Belts. A number of recent lawsuit present the legal issue of whether vehicle manufacturers can be liable for providing insufficient seat belts in the design of a vehicle and its equipment. Basically, the plaintiffs in these cases claim that by installing only a lap belt in a vehicle, manufacturers are making passengers more susceptible to serious injuries, compared with passengers who are dually restrained by lap and shoulder belts.
In situations where an injury can be attributable to a seat belt malfunction or the manufacturer's design defect, injured drivers and passengers may be able to pursue a products liability claim. Parties at fault in a products liability claim may include a manufacturer, retailer, supplier or distributor of the seat belt itself, or of the automobile in which the seat belt was installed.
Product liability claims can get pretty complex in terms of proving a defect and establishing liability. So, if you’re involved in an accident where a seat belt may not have functioned properly, or where you believe that the vehicle maker’s failure to provide adequate safety restraints made your injuries worse, it’s best to talk with an experienced attorney.