Normally, I have nothing but good things to say about seatbelts (on those rare occasions when the topic arises). Sure, they might be irritating at times, but they’ve made a significant contribution toward making travel safer —they also do a bang up job of keeping kids from climbing all over the interior of your car while in transit, something I really appreciate. However, I recently had an experience that illustrated how this safety technology that we all take for granted can backfire in the wrong hands. What happened seems to be fairly rare and from what I’ve been able to dig up, our experience was on the extreme side. But just in case, I suggest you add one more tool to your vehicle’s safety kit.
Before I get to the details, a bit of background information is in order. Passenger seatbelts in vehicles sold in the US and Canada currently operate in two different modes: ELR and ALR.
ELR (or Emergency Locking Retractor) is the mode that prevents your seltbelt from extending if you push against it quickly. The G-forces from a collision, or rapidly applied brakes cause the belt to lock, preventing the passenger from flying forward. When the event is over, the seatbelt releases and you can move freely again. ALR (or Automatic Locking Retractor) is likely familiar to any parent who has installed a child seat in their vehicle. A seatbelt’s ALR mode is usually activated by pulling the belt until it’s fully extended. At this point, a ratchet mechanism kicks in and as the belt retracts (you’ll hear it clicking), it cannot be pulled out any further again until it is fully retracted, at which point it returns to ‘normal’ ELR mode. ALR is what ensures that once you lock a childseat into place with that seatbelt, the motion of the vehicle can’t loosen it.
Here’s the situation I found myself in. Driving into an underground parking lot with three kids in a three-row SUV (my wife was meeting us in the room), a dead iPhone (battery drained) and a bunch of luggage to unload. When I parked, there was no-one else around and it was also hot and stuffy, as garages often are. Doors were open for unloading and kids (age 8,8 and 11) were beginning to stir after the seven hour drive. I was sorting through the luggage and rather focused on the task when two of my kids came running to say the third was crying. When I walked around to the passenger compartment to investigate, I discovered that child no.1, sitting in the back row, had somehow become entangled in the seatbelt; it was released, but wrapped under her arms and knotted for good measure. There was no slack available to free her, let alone to take the pressure off. Evidently, no.1 had pulled the belt out all the way (engaging ALR mode), then unlatched it. Somehow, she managed to loop it under her arms and when unable to move forward, kept shifting back. All the while the seatbelt, in ALR’s ratchet mode, took up the slack. No.1 struggled quietly for a few minutes -unbeknown to me (honestly, she was very quiet and the windows are tinted)- until she was thoroughly trapped.
By the time the situation was discovered, no.1 was caught and having difficulty breathing, pinned against the rear pillar where the seatbelt was mounted. It was hot and stuffy, making things worse. My iPhone was dead. The garage was empty. I had no knife or scissors. I had no choice but to leave no.1 (after making her promise not to move or struggle) and with the 8 year olds in tow, run for the hotel lobby and hope I made it back before she asphyxiated herself. I swiped the concierge’s scissors, ran back to the truck and cut the belt. She was OK, but in a panic, hyperventilating and had deep purple abrasions around her torso. I was about the same, minus the abrasions. I had also compressed about a year’s worth of cursing into roughly 20 minutes, which probably sounded even more inspirational with the echo effect of the parking garbage.
The manufacturer took the incident quite seriously and sent an investigator from its head office to examine the vehicle and to confirm that the seatbelt mechanism hadn’t malfunctioned. They also replaced the belt at no charge. In discussing the experience with a representative, it turned out that they did have one similarly severe case on file in the US, although they didn’t track less serious incidents so there was no telling how frequently “misuse” of the ALR belts ended poorly. Google tells me I’m not alone and other parents have had run-ins with ALR mode seatbelts since they were mandated, although most experiences have been more a nuisance than a scare. There will be a warning in your owner’s manual or on the belt mechanism itself but they tend to downplay the potential effects. For example, my owner’s manual has this to say:
“The ALR mode should be used only for child restraint installation. During normal seat belt use by a passenger, the ALR mode should not be activated. If it is activated it may cause uncomfortable seat belt tension. “
I actually read my owner’s manual when we first bought the vehicle and somehow that warning didn’t jump out at me…
Please don’t take this as railing against safety legislation or a diatribe against seatbelts —It’s not. You should use them! But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to carry a seatbelt cutting tool in your glovebox, just in case your kid is that statistical outlier who finds a way to subvert the safety measures. You can pick one up on Amazon for under ten bucks and most gas stations carry them. I’m told these also comes in handy if your car somehow lands in a river and you have to punch out the glass then slice the belts to escape, although I have no intention of testing that…
For all the dirt on seatbelt rules and regulations, check the DOT.