Locking the Seat Belt (also known as engaging the automatic locking retractor)

You have probably heard about “locking the seat belt,” but do you know what that means or how to do it?

Almost all shoulder belts have a retractor. This device not only spools the excess seat belt, but also locks the seat belt so that it holds you tight in a crash.

All shoulder belts typically have an emergency locking retractor. With this type of retractor, during normal driving you can lean forward and back and the seat belt will slide in and out, but when you slam on the brakes in an emergency, the shoulder belt locks and holds you tight.

If your car is model year 1996 or newer, the retractor is usually a SWITCHABLE retractor – meaning that it can switch from the usual mode of locking only in an emergency to a mode where it locks at all times – called the automatic locking mode. Changing the belt from the emergency to automatic locking mode is easy! Simply pull the shoulder belt out all the way (do it slowly) and when you get to the very end, let the belt go back in a little bit. As it goes back in you may hear a ratcheting sound, and if you give a gentle pull you’ll notice that the belt is locked and it is not possible to make the belt any longer. In the automatic locking mode, the shoulder belt only gets shorter. It doesn’t get longer–and this is how you can use it to hold a car seat tight. The seat belt will go back to “normal” when you let the belt all the way back in.

Some cars do not have a switchable retractor. Most Jeep, Chrysler, and Dodge vehicles do not have switchable retractors. Instead they have only the emergency locking retractor. Other vehicles that may not have a switchable retractor are some vehicles made by GM, Ford, Saab, and Volvo.

Note: Several dozen children have nearly strangled to death after finding an unused seat belt and in the midst of playing with it, wrapped it around their necks. Here is our page regarding this issue and how to prevent it.