When Ford launched the automotive industry's first inflatable rear seatbelts in its 2011 Ford Explorer, the company stressed that the main goal was safety for rear-seat occupants, especially children and the elderly.
"The advanced restraint system is designed to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers, often children and older passengers who can be more vulnerable to such injuries," Ford said in a press release at the introduction of the technology.
The inflatable belt, noticeably thicker than a conventional seatbelt, deploys in milliseconds when a crash occurs, according to Ford. It lessens impact by distributing crash force energy across five times more of the rider's torso than a traditional belt, the carmaker says. In addition to availability in the Explorer, the belts are also offered as options on the 2013 Ford Flex and 2013 Lincoln MKT.
However, many car safety-seat makers now are warning parents not to use the new inflatable belts with their child safety seats or boosters. The caution comes as many parents are getting used to the safety seat recommendations issued in 2011.
If you're a parent who owns a vehicle equipped with inflatable belts — or are considering the purchase of one — here's what you need to know.
Car-Seat Makers Cautious
The hesitation about recommending the use of the inflatable belt in conjunction with child safety seats appears to stem from a lack of widespread research, not reports of specific mishaps.
Safety experts at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute have not studied the issue directly, says Matthew P. Reed, Ph.D., research associate professor and head of the institute's biosciences group. However, based on his knowledge of mechanics and the issues, he says the safety-seat makers are simply being cautious.
"The child restraint manufacturers are concerned that the energy of the inflating seatbelt could damage the booster or alter its performance in adverse ways," Reed says. "Inflatable belts are not included in U.S. federal regulatory tests of belt-positioning boosters and no standard test procedures are available to determine how they affect safety for children in boosters."
The inflatable seatbelts were tested before the Explorer launch, says Ford spokesperson Marcey Zwiebel.
"We conducted extensive dynamic tests," she says. The booster tests included both boy and girl test dummies of various weights. Ford tested infant seats facing rear, forward and with and without the base as well as convertible seats.
Ford officials are continuing to discuss the results of these tests with child safety-seat makers and their industry group, the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association, Zwiebel says.
Government safety officials say they can't yet endorse the new use of the belts with child safety seats. "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cannot speak to the effectiveness of inflatable seatbelts, as we have not studied these systems," a NHTSA spokesperson says.
Makers of car safety seats say they will continue to review the data as it evolves. Exactly where the data will come from isn't clear. NHTSA does not have plans to do testing unless a need arises for it, according to an agency spokesman.
Advice for Parents
Those manufacturers that advise against using the inflatable belts with their infant seats recommend using the child restraint anchorage system, Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, (LATCH) instead. If they recommend against using the inflatable belts with their booster seats, they suggest moving the booster to a position that has a standard three-point seatbelt.
That is an acceptable solution, according to NHTSA. A suitable alternative to using an inflatable belt is to install the child restraint in a seating position that does not have such a belt, or to use a LATCH instead, according to NHTSA. The inflatable seatbelts typically are offered on the outboard second-row seats, but not the center seat.
NHTSA also has advised that parents read both the vehicle owner's manual and the child restraint manual for instructions on proper installation.
When questions from parents arose about the inflatable seatbelts, the child-safety group Safe Kids.org polled car safety-seat makers and assembled an inflatable seatbelt policy list. It describes where 18 makers of safety seats stand on the use of the inflatable belts. As of the June 2012 update, the overwhelming majority of car-seat manufacturers advised against using the inflatable seatbelts.
One exception is Graco. It approves of using its booster seats with the inflatable seatbelts. It does not, however, approve of using the inflatable belts to install and secure its other child safety seats.
"Based on data that was provided by Ford, we can confirm that the inflatable belts will adequately secure a child in the booster seat," a Graco spokesperson says.
A Solution for Seat/Car Mismatches?
One solution to the ongoing problem of incompatibility between car seats and the cars in which they're used would be for carmakers to make their own car seats. But most have decided not to do that.
"Automakers might reasonably conclude that they should stick to their core business of making vehicles," says Reed, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute professor.
One carmaker that has developed integrated boosters is Volvo, which has put them in its XC60 and XC70 models. The booster can be adjusted to two positions; one fits children 37-47 inches in height, while the other fits them from 45-55, says Volvo spokesperson Laura DiStefano.
In addition to the integrated booster, Volvo also offers an accessory booster, DiStefano says. It's meant for children from 3-10 years old, up to 80 pounds. But offerings beyond that are unlikely due to cost and other factors, she adds.
Testing at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has found that boosters built into vehicle seats do provide a good belt fit, Professor Reed says. But even if carmakers did make their own portable car seats, it would not be likely to solve the compatibility problem — particularly for families with a mix of cars from different manufacturers.
"For families that own vehicles from multiple manufacturers, buying separate child restraints for each vehicle may not be a good solution," he says.
Instead, an important step is to improve standards of compatibility so most safety seats and boosters fit securely in most vehicles, he says. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has recently started testing cars for easy car-seat installation. Here is its list of 2011 models that meet its easy installation criteria — and vehicles that don't.
Best Advice to Date
Until more information emerges on using the new inflatable seatbelts with child safety seats, parents can contact the maker of their child's safety seat for their best advice, says Kerry Chausmer, certification director for Safe Kids Worldwide. The site maintains this contact list.
Also, each child restraint has stickers with the manufacturer's phone number and the make, model number and date of manufacture of the seat, Chausmer says.
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