Kids will be kids. Strapped in with nothing to do, kids will find something – anything – to play with. Unfortunately, several dozen kids 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 thinking: “Why can’t you simply unwrap the belt?” Virtually every seat belt found in the back seat of cars since 1996 here in the US has a locking mode – whereby when you pull the shoulder belt out to the very end, the seat belt no longer moves in and out freely, but rather will only get shorter, not longer. When the children play with the seat belts, they inadvertently switch the shoulder belt into this locking mode – and once in the locking mode, the belt only gets shorter, but can not be lengthened no matter how hard you pull. With the belt in this locking mode, it is very difficult for the child – and even the parents – 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 – were it not for several police officers who 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.
1. 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. Most shoulder belts have a retractor with two locking modes: an emergency locking mode and an automatic locking mode.
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.
2. Keep seat belt cutters handy – in case your child does figure out how to wrap the belt around their neck.
A few more tips:
For any child:
For kids riding in shoulder-lap belts (with or without a booster seat):
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 have 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.
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.