Did the seat belt fail?
October 20, 2009 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Automobile accident: Did the seat belt fail? What should we do?

My wife was recently involved in an automobile accident. She was driving our 07 Kia Spectra and rear-ended a large SUV on an exit ramp connecting two major highways(no intersection or traffic lights involved), traveling at about 45mph. The ramp has 2 lanes, and the collision occurred when she was switching from the left-hand lane to the right. She was ticketed by a state trooper for "unsafe lane change."

Her injuries are, thankfully, limited to some severe bruising across her abdomen and shoulder, and pain that she describes as muscle soreness. The other driver did not leave the scene in an ambulance, injuries were probably less severe than my wife's.

My actual question concerns the seat belt. After the collision, the seat belt was fully extended and hanging loosely, and the buckle had come undone. The seat belt did not retract after the accident, and appears to have not locked during. That doesn't seem normal. We have photos of the seat belt fully extended and hanging loosely, not retracting, but when we went to check out the car a couple of days ago, the buckle seemed to be functioning normally, so it would be difficult or impossible to prove it came undone. Of course, I can't put nearly the same force on it by yanking that a high-speed collision would cause.

Should we contact Kia? A lawyer? Or is that totally normal and we should let it go? We're really thankful that the injuries aren't any worse than they are, but we also think something should be done about that seat belt, if it indeed malfunctioned.

If it matters, location is north-east edge of DFW metroplex.

posted by anonymous to Law & Government (10 answers total)
If the seatbelt engaged properly during an accident (and, by your description, it appears that it did) it should be replaced. It's done its job and should not be trusted to continue to operate properly in the event of another accident.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:02 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had to slam on my brakes once (going about 45 MPH) to avoid a car coming into my lane, head-on. My daughter was about two at the time and in her high-back, five-point harness car seat, buckled in properly with the seat belt of the car. As soon as the car came to a complete stop, she started screaming bloody murder. I looked back and saw her, face against the seat in front of her, totally buckled in her car seat but not buckled to the car's seat. The buckle had failed and thank God she wasn't in the middle seat that day. The seat in front of her stopped her from going through the windshield.

I called Honda as soon as we got home and they told me to bring the car to the dealer immediately. They checked it out and didn't find anything wrong, but faced with the evidence of the HUGE bruise on my daughter's forehead, they replaced the seat belt. (I actually think they would have replaced it regardless of the bruise; they all were very apologetic and were pretty much willing to do whatever I wanted them to do.)

It's worth a call to Kia, for sure.
posted by cooker girl at 8:08 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

from your wife's brusing, it sure sounds like the seatbelt engaged, but now needs to be replaced.
posted by jrishel at 8:16 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

From your description, the seat belt worked perfectly and entirely as designed.

Her injuries are, thankfully, limited to some severe bruising across her abdomen and shoulder, and pain that she describes as muscle soreness.

This is the result (on the person) of the seat belt doing its job of slowing down a large amount of mass (a person) from a very high energy collision (45mph is FAST in crash terms).

the seat belt was fully extended and hanging loosely, and the buckle had come undone. The seat belt did not retract after the accident, and appears to have not locked during.

This is the result (on the belt) of the seat belt doing its job. Belts stretch - they are designed to do so. They also lock with an inertia based system, not permanently, so it will not remain locked after the initial accident but may no longer retract due to the stretching. Seat belts are a consumable item,in a crash situation and should be replaced after every decent sized impact as they deform to do their job properly.

I'm really seeing no sign at all of a seat belt failure - your wife didn't go through the windscreen, nor did she end up out of her seat. It sounds like the belt restrained her enough to hurt her (which is, oddly, good) so it is unlikely the buckle failed during the impact or she'd have been thrown from her seat. My guess is that something (or some part of her) triggered the belt to open, perhaps even in the shock of the moment she went to release herself and didn't remember by the time she noticed the belt was slack and looked for a reason. It's unlikely she has perfect recall of the impact and immediately after it (nor would anyone, really).

If the belt release had failed, it would likely have been damaged in teh process - the fact it works perfectly now suggests another explanation. In addition, the style of bruising suggests that the belt was certainly working during the highest loading part of the impact - which is also the most likely time for failure of the buckle.

I don't think you have an issue. I don't think that anyone that walks away from a crash with anything other than bruising is anything other than lucky and demonstrating impressive crash safety of the car. The injuries are significantly more minor than the crash, from your description.
posted by Brockles at 8:26 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

In the manual for my 2001 Kia, there's something about a simple safety mechanism that indicates that a seatbelt was stretched out during an accident. Basically, there's a label at the bottom of the belt, where it bolts into the floor. If the car was in an accident and the seat belt stretched, the label is exposed (the label says something like "seat belt damaged").

I know that's not a great answer, but you might look at the manual to see if the same is true for your car. Either way, I'd call Kia.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:27 AM on October 20, 2009

Many new seat belts have a pretensioning system that is controlled by the Airbag Control Module.
There is frequently either an explosive charge or other mechanism in the seatbelt retracting mechanism that, when the various accelerometers or impact sensors detect a specific type of accident, actuate this pretensioner in order to keep the passenger in their seat and correctly positioned in the event of an airbag deployment.
After the pretensioner is actuated, the seatbelt will be completely useless and MUST be replaced. If the actuator had fired-off with nobody in the seat, the belt would likely be locked in its maximum retracted position. With a passenger in the seat, the belt would be locked up in whatever position the belt was able to retract to, given the size of the occupant.

Recently, I replaced all three rear seat belts in a car involved in an accident. There was only a single occupant, the driver, but the since there's no occupancy detection mechanism in the back seat, the Control module fired all three belt tensioners anyway. They were so tight that they had crushed some of the seat and part of the plastic guard channel that the belt slides through.

Remember, nothing about SRS (Supplemental Restraint Systems) like airbags or belt tensioners are supposed to keep a car accident from hurting or to prevent any damage to the occupant. They're designed to save your life in a split second during an extremely dangerous situation.
Just the same way that a bullet-proof vest may result in huge bruises and broken ribs, while saving you from a gunshot.

If you have concerns about the buckle failing, however, contact Kia. I know at Audi, we had a national rep who would come out an investigate any faulty airbag or crash-protection concern. They, and the government, take this very seriously and will probably look into this.
posted by Jon-o at 9:16 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

I am not a seatbelt expert, but if her bruising is in the shape and general area of where the seatbelt normally lies across her body, I'd say that the seatbelt worked by keeping her from going through the windshield or smashing against the steering wheel (if she has steering wheel shaped bruising, I might doubt the seatbelt, but not entirely).

I would expect the buckle to be unfastened because she had to get out of the car somehow, right? (Unless you are talking about a different buckle than I'm thinking of). I was "T boned" when someone ran a red light once. Full impact on my driver's side door which set off my airbag (in an 98 Saturn where the airbag should have only gone off in a frontal collision...no side curtain airbags). After the car stopped spinning around, my immediate panicked thought was ESCAPE! ESCAPE! RUN! because I was choking on the airbag stuff and I couldn't get the door open (because it was smashed beyond belief). I was just about to start climbing through the sunroof when a witness came to the passenger door...only then did I realize that I could just get out on that side. The brain processes things differently when full of adrenaline...she could have pulled at the seatbelt or unbuckled it immediately after the impact without realizing it.

Also, in the process of her getting out of the car (or medics removing her from the car), the seatbelt would have had to be pulled out of the way. After an accident like that, seatbelts don't work as they normally do because they've done their job...so the fact that it's loose and not retracting doesn't necessarily mean it didn't work during the accident.

If you are really concerned about it, check with Kia. They would be able to tell you how it should function and whether or not it looks normal now which may help you process this whole thing better. I hope your wife recovers quickly!!
posted by MultiFaceted at 9:29 AM on October 20, 2009

The seatbelt didn't fail. It did what it was supposed to. And now it needs to be replaced.

I was rear ended in June, hit while stopped on the highway by a car that was doing approximately 50MPH. I had the same bruising as your wife and my doctor said it was normal because of the high speed of the hit. Thank god for the seat belt.

I don't think you have any beef with Kia's equipment failing or cause to go to a lawyer. Make sure your insurance company has the seat belt fully replaced.
posted by jerseygirl at 9:43 AM on October 20, 2009

I believe Jon-o has the correct answer, that the condition of the seatbelt is probably due to the pretensioner firing. It appears that this model car is equipped with pretensioners. Also, as others have noted, the bruise pattern is consistent with that produced by a functioning seatbelt in a "normal" collision.
posted by itstheclamsname at 10:48 AM on October 20, 2009

OP here. Just wanted to say thanks to everyone posting in this thread. I submitted anonymously because I wasn't sure if this might be a legal matter, but after reading your replies it's obviously not. I appreciate all the information and reassurance that the seat belt functioned as it should, and the well-wishing for my wife. I've learned a lot about seat belts today!
posted by owtytrof at 11:10 AM on October 20, 2009

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