Common Seat Belt Problems and Recalls

Many motorists may believe the most important safety system installed on an automobile is the supplemental inflatable restraints, commonly called, airbags. Although this system ranks high on the list of preventing injuries, it’s completely useless unless the passenger is fastened securely by the seat belt. It is critical for drivers and passengers to be in the right position for the airbags to provide effective protection. This article covers the different types of seat belts found on both newer and older vehicles. Discover exactly what a pretensioner is and why they’re so important during an accident. Review some of the largest recalls related to seat belt problems on popular model cars and trucks.

Different Kinds of Seat Belts

All restraint systems fall into two basic categories of active or passive. An active system means the driver or passengers must complete an action to gain the benefit. An example is when a driver pulls a shoulder belt across his body and clicks it into the buckle. A passive system is one that works automatically. A properly operating airbag system is a prime example of a passive restraint. Another example of a passive system would be the automatic style installed on Ford vehicles in the mid to late 80s. These automatically applied the restraint by running the buckle side across a motorized track at the top of the doors. For the most part this system was abandoned due to noisy and annoying operation.

How Seat belt Retractors Work

An automatic seat belt retractor conveniently stores the shoulder and lap belts when the buckle is released by the occupant. These can be spring-loaded or motorized, but will automatically coil the fabric belt around a cylinder. The operation of the retractor, allows for comfort when driving normally, but provides a lockup function that prevents the forward movement of the occupant during an accident.This can be accomplished in several ways, but on older vehicles, a common method was using an inertia lock that sensed a sudden slowdown in vehicle speed to stop the fabric belt from uncoiling, thereby physically holding the driver in place.

Seatbelt Retractor Problems

Seat belt retractors can be mounted just about anywhere, but are often found mounted to the floor. With this vulnerable location come problems associated with dirt, spilled drinks, debris and foreign objects finding their way down inside. When this occurs, it results in a few common problems. Failure to retract is often attributed to this situation. Also a fabric belt that becomes folded can impede its ability to smoothly retract and can be a struggle to pull out when latching in passengers.

Pretensioning Seat belt Retractor Operation

Since the primary function of the seat belt is to hold the driver in place during a crash event, Vehicle manufacturers identified that removing any slack was beneficial. This led to the invention of the pretensioning seatbelt retractor, which automatically removes the slack and snugly pulls the driver into the proper position for an accident. The two common types of pretensioner are the electric variety that depends on a motor to quickly tighten the belt. Another popular method is a pyrotechnic version that uses a small explosion in the retractor assembly to physically pull the belt tight. The activation of these automatic systems are triggered by the same crash sensors used to deploy the airbag.

Seat Belt Recalls on Popular Models

One of the biggest seat belt recalls of all times was issued on the General Motors F-body car line. Both ends of the restraint system were recalled on 1982 through 1992 Pontiac Firebird, Trans Am’s and Chevrolet Camaro’s. On the buckle side, the plastic release buttons were replaced because the original equipment weren’t holding up. On the retractor side, they had problems with the automatic tension spring coming loose. The recall applied a safety clip over the spring to assure it didn’t separate from the assembly. In late summer 2013 Toyota opened a voluntary recall of 342,000 Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks for problems with a pretensioner assembly. The recall was issued to address a situation where the bolts could back out of the pretension spring causing improper operation in an accident.

Using the factory supplied restraint systems is not only common sense, but in most states, it’s the law. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) provides a comprehensive list of seat belt laws outlining the penalty and fines for each state. For those concerned about safety recalls on their own personal vehicles should locate the customer service hotline number in the owner’s manual. Contact the manufacturer with the vehicle identification number to verify there are no outstanding safety recalls.