Kids act like kids. Strapped in with nothing to do, kids will find something – anything – to play with. Unfortunately, several dozen children have nearly strangled to death after finding an unused shoulder belt, and in the midst of playing with it, wrapped it around their neck.

You might be wondering “Why can’t you simply unwrap the belt?” Here’s why: Virtually every seat belt found in the back seat of cars in the US since 1996 has an optional locking mode. This means when you pull the shoulder belt out to the very end, the seat belt no longer moves in and out freely, but rather only gets shorter and shorter. When a child plays with a seat belt, they can inadvertently switch the shoulder belt into this locking mode. Once in the locking mode, the belt only gets shorter, and can’t be lengthened no matter how hard you pull. With the belt in this locking mode, it’s very difficult for the child or even caregivers to free the belt from the child’s neck. A belt cutter, knife, or scissors has been used in most cases to cut the belt and free the child.

The New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, where he writes of his own harrowing experience where his 3-year-old son Ichi nearly strangled to death while playing with the unused shoulder belt in the center seat of their vehicle. An 8 year old boy in New York recently came very close to dying; luckily several police officers happened to be very nearby. A 5 year old girl recently came within seconds of strangling to death and was rescued when a neighbor was able to find a pair of scissors to cut the belt free from around the child’s neck.

How to prevent this:

  • Remove the potential for a problem to occur. Be aware of your vehicle’s seat belt retractors and make sure that any shoulder belts within your child’s reach are switched to their locking mode and made tight. This will prevent the child from being able to wrap the belt around their neck. To lock the retractor (i.e. switch it from the emergency to automatic locking mode): Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt all the way out. As the belt goes back into the retractor, a ratcheting (clicking) sound may be heard. The belt cannot be loosened without unbuckling the belt and letting most of it go back into the retractor. If no one is sitting in that position, buckle the seat belt, pull the shoulder belt all the way out, and put the belt into its locking mode.
  • Teach ALL children that seat belts are not toys.
  • Keep seat belt cutters handy – in case your child does figure out how to wrap the belt around their neck.

Specifically for booster riders:

  • Teach them to NEVER play with their seat belt. Once they are buckled in, they should not be touching their belt. Children who are unable to sit in a booster without playing with their seat belts are likely not mature enough for a booster and should still be riding in a 5-point-harness car seat.
  • Some parents may consider “locking” the seat belt on the child (i.e. pulling the shoulder belt all the way out and engaging the seat belt’s built in locking feature). Locking the seat belt has the potential to increase injury in a crash as with the belt locked, there is a greater chance of the child sliding under the lap belt (often called submarining). Therefore, we suggest locking the seat belt on a child in a booster/seat belt ONLY as a last resort if the child can not sit properly in the belt without it locked AND if there is no way for the child to ride in a 5-point-harness car seat instead of a booster/seat belt. If you are locking the belt on a child in a booster, we would suggest using a Britax booster that features a SecureGuard strap which will try and prevent the lap belt from sliding up into the child’s belly area – and may decrease the risk posed by locking the seat belt. 

For kids riding in 5-point harness car seats:

  • If you have used the vehicle’s shoulder-lap belt to secure the child seat to the car: Follow installation instructions in the manuals for the child seat and the vehicle. After installation, make sure that the shoulder belt is either locked tight without slack or that it moves freely in and out and cannot be locked.
  • If you used the lower LATCH connectors to secure the child seat to the car: Always check the owner’s manual to your vehicle and child car seat as they may have specific instructions regarding this issue. First, buckle the shoulder and lap belt and lock the retractor, and remove the slack in the belt so it lies flat against the vehicle seat. Install the child seat with the lower LATCH connectors according to instructions. Note: Some vehicle manufacturers state the unused belt should be released from the buckle after the safety seat is installed.

Safety Belt Safe has a fantastic easy-to-print tip sheet on how to keep kids safe from entanglement.