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Can Seat Belts Cause Accidents or Injuries on Children?

Dan is a licensed electrician and has been a homeowner for 40 years. He has nearly always done his own repair and improvement tasks.

Are seat belts always safe?

Are seat belts always safe?

Seat Belts and Safety

There are few people today that would doubt that seat belts save lives, but can they be dangerous as well? Are there valid safety concerns in using a seat belt?

Well, of course there are concerns; nearly everything in our lives can be dangerous to some degree. The rubber band your newspaper is rolled in can be dangerous if used for the wrong purpose, but who is going to use a seat belt for anything but securing themselves in the seat of a car?

Surprisingly, the question is a valid one and one of the reasons is that seat belts aren't always used for the purpose for which they are intended. The following story is a true tale of a frightening experience a grandmother and granddaughter that are close to this writer had with a seat belt. Please continue, then, and ask yourself if it could happen to you and what you can do to prevent it.

A True Story of a Seat Belt Near Accident

The story begins with a grandmother and her 7-year-old granddaughter setting out on a long drive. The weather was terrible with snow and ice covered roads, but that is not unusual where they live and Grandma was used to it. Both were belted into the car, and their little dog accompanied them.

A few miles outside of town a bad truck accident had closed the freeway, stalling traffic. Grandma decided to take the dog for a short walk to relieve himself and, with the dog on a leash, made a few rounds of the car. Safe enough; she took the keys, locked the car doors and would never be more than a few feet from the car.

Upon returning, Grandma shook the snow off, put the dog on the front seat and settled in for what looked like a long wait for the road to be cleared. A small voice from the back seat spoke up "A little help here, please?"; turning around Grandma found that the little girl had unhooked her seat belt and idly looped it around her neck but could not get back out of the loop. Every move served only to tighten the belt and she couldn't get it back over her head.

Without too much concern, Grandma got back out of the car and proceeded around to open the door where her granddaughter sat, on the other side of the car. Her nonchalance quickly disappeared when she realized just what the problem was and how tight the belt was getting; she quickly grabbed the belt where it disappears into the car and tried to pick the girl off the seat with her other hand to provide slack. The child was already being pulled off the seat, though, and Grandma couldn't get her any higher without letting go of the belt. Further struggles only tightened the belt as the retract mechanism continued to draw it in with every bit of slack produced even though grandma was doing her best to prevent it. By this time the girl could not breathe and was able to produce only small gurgling sounds—no speech at all.

Grandma's frantic waving with her free arm managed to attract the attention of a nearby truck driver, who got out of his truck and ambled overseeing the problem he asked if she wanted the belt cut. Grandma tried to say there was a knife in the front seat, but the truck driver simply whipped out a pocket knife and quickly cut the belt.

There was no lasting damage from the incident (outside of needing a new seat belt), but there were broken blood vessels all over the girl's eyes from being strangled. The pressure from that seat belt must have been tremendous to cause that kind of damage as well as preventing the girl from breathing. Had Grandma stayed outside with the dog just a few more minutes, the results could have been far different.

Preventing Similar Accidents

Very occasionally one hears of seat belts that won't release and need cut, usually because of a malfunction of the device itself and usually without any danger to the person. This example, though, is different. The belt did exactly what it was designed to do and the hazard was not from defective equipment. It existed because a child, bored and inattentive, wrapped the belt around her neck. Who would ever foresee such a thing happening? And yet it did.

I very often carry my young grandchildren in my own car and, upon hearing of this, I promptly put a knife (a box cutter in my case) in the glove compartment. I didn't wait a day or a week; I went to the toolbox, got the knife and put it in the car. I also ordered a seat belt cutter to store in my car.

The grandma in the story had just such a tool, and the location she chose to keep it—the driver's door pocket—seems very reasonable. She just didn't take it with her for a seat belt problem and unless she was to release the belt to continue to retract she could no longer reach the tool she so desperately needed.

The moral of the story is to have the tool and to have it in hand whenever it even might be needed. Please keep a knife of some kind, whether the box cutter mentioned or one of the more useful tools intended to facilitate getting out of a car (the ones shown will also break window glass if the door won't open). They are inexpensive and could save your life or the life of your loved one.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Dan Harmon


Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on March 23, 2016:

What a situation that was! One never knows what a child might do with things differently than what is intended. You wrote about this well and with a good intro leading into the story.

Seat belts can have negative affects depending on what happens. I remember once, over twenty years ago when seats belts were first introduced, I was rear-ended while sitting at a red light. I was not wearing my seat belt. The car hit me with such force that it pushed my car forward so rapidly that I got thrown into the back seat.

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I went to my doctor since I was badly bruised. He told me that if I had been wearing my seat belt I'd be dead. He explained that the seat belt would have held me in and my neck would have snapped. Instead my intire body was free to fly over the seat as the car got knocked forward.

In those days we didn't have headrests. Of course a headrest would avoid snapping the neck even if wearing a seat belt. So things are different today. But a situation such as you described can still occur and it is a good idea to have a tool to cut the seat belt in an emergency as you mentioned.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on July 23, 2015:

Dan, this was a super useful hub and the hidden dangers of seat belts, and the harm they could do. Voted up!

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on December 31, 2013:

Marcy, they have absolutely saved thousands (or millions) of lives. This incident was just so freaky I felt it should be put out the public, as something to be aware of. The circumstances were strange and unusual (child without immediate supervision, in a car without a belt on but with an adult just feet away and returning soon) but who knows - it could be you or I next.

I know it would never have occurred to me that a child would wrap a seat belt around their neck, OR that they then could not get it off! Sure, think about it and it is quite possible, but I would never have thought about it.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 31, 2013:

Interesting hub - when my youngest was very small, the seatbelt clasp jammed and failed,with him strapped in. We had to cut the strap to get him out - scared me to think of what could have happened if there'd been a wreck, or a fire in the car. But I do agree they've saved thousands of lives.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on December 31, 2013:

Something to consider concerning supervision of a child in a car seat is that the car seat is (or should be) in the back seat, out of the drivers immediate view. Supervision is not really possible on a minute by minute basis.

In this case, the "driver" was not driving and still wasn't in constant supervision, but who does? Who keeps an eye on a 7 year old every second of their life? It seemed sufficient that the car was under supervision; no one could get to the car without being seen, but the child inside was deemed OK for a few minutes outside of total, visual observation. No one keeps a 7 year old child (or any other age, for that matter) under observation 24 hours a day. We don't eye a napping child, we don't take them to the bathroom with us, we allow them out of the room at times.

Which puts us back to the point; children do the strangest things and we MUST be ready to take care of whatever they get themselves into.

RTalloni on December 31, 2013:

Well, there's no doubt that this is a good hub for all child-care providers to start this new year reading. It makes me feel sick to see parents leaving their children strapped in car seats for even "just a minute." A child in a car seat should always be supervised by an adult, and adding this tool to a car emergency kit is obviously imperative. Thanks for sharing this incident with advice on keeping the knife handy.

LongTimeMother from Australia on February 23, 2013:

I am amazed by the difference in seat belts. In some cars, just driving on a straight road at a reasonable speed, the seat belt automatically tightens. Uncomfortable for an adult, potentially dangerous for a child.

I've never noticed those tools in shops here before, but I'm going to find out if they sell them after reading this story. Thank you.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on February 07, 2013:

No question at all that the plusses far outweigh the minuses and near accidents such as this are no excuse for not using seat belts.

We can, however, be aware of such infrequent problems and take precautions to eliminate what very few hazards there are with seat belts.

Girish puri from NCR , INDIA on February 07, 2013:

I think, when we compare between plus and minuses of seat belts, we find pluses more, but still thank you for this very useful hub having all the precautions, Useful hub, God bless.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 31, 2013:

@newusedcarssacram: Yes, there is danger in nearly everything around us; the key is recognizing that danger and compensating for it when necessary. This particular incident emphasizes a danger that few people would every recognize until it happened.

@GoldenThreadPress: I, too, had seen those tools, but ignored them as unnecessary; something that would never be used. I now know better and carry one in the car.

GoldenThreadPress on January 30, 2013:

Wow! What a story and I'm glad that your grand niece is better. I've wondered about that tool. In fact just the other day the news carried a story about a young driver who mistook the accelerator for a break and ended up driving into a lake with his dad and dog. All came out okay, since the windows were open. But what if the windows weren't and they were strapped in and couldn't get out... As your family has experienced things can and do go awry. Thanks, wilderness, for bringing this to our attention. Best Regards--Deb

newusedcarssacram from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A on January 30, 2013:

If we are not careful, anything can hurt us. The incident you have shared is dangerous. The little girl was really lucky. I hope this hub will help people to understand how something, which is meant for safety, can hurt us.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 29, 2013:

@Susan: Please do check that you have a knife. This story (about my grand niece) badly scared the whole family and we ALL carry a knife now.

@Judi: Yes, I had shared the basic story on the forums. I felt it important enough to write the hub anyway, spreading the word even further.

@cfin: The problem with educating children is that we forget just how silly they can be. It would just never occur to me that a child would do that and thus I would never educate them about it. Partly, perhaps, because when I grew up seat belts were unknown; we stood in the front seat or maybe rolled around the back of the station wagon, laughing and giggling in the sharp turns.

A harness would certainly be safer (look at what race drivers wear) but will also be much more uncomfortable and harder to fit to different people. I doubt we'll ever see that as a result.

cfin from The World we live in on January 29, 2013:

Very interesting and a good point. Educating children to the dangers of seatbelts, may also be a good idea. I remember being a kid and thinking that the seat belt was fun to play with.

Its amazing that Volvo invented seat belts so many years ago, yet they have never been updated. I always wondered why we don't wear a harness of some sort in a car. Surely it would be safer and not very much more expensive if they were manufacturing them in bulk.

Judi Brown from UK on January 29, 2013:

I remember you posting about this in the forum. Sharing it, it's an important and cautionary tale.

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on January 29, 2013:

This is something I've never thought of before. Thank you for writing this to alert people. Sometimes there's a utility knife in our vehicles but I'm not positive that there's always one there. I'll be going out later and I'll make sure that I have something to cut a seat belt with from now on.

Thank goodness the child was okay after all of this.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on January 29, 2013:

That's a scary story. There's no two ways about it, sometimes a seat belt can be a nuisance. That tool is a life saver, so good on you.


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