Tragic YouTube Video Questions Seatbelt Safety

Kyle Miller's parents tried to do everything right: The 3-year-old weighed 40 pounds — too big, they thought, for a five-point harness car seat — so they buckled their son and his older sister into booster seats. But when the family's minivan was hit by a driver running a red light in May 2005, it rolled over, and Kyle was ejected from the car and killed. His sister, though, emerged essentially unharmed.

Why one child survived and the other didn't, Kyle's parents assert, was because the seatbelt holding Kyle's car seat, which was buckled before impact, came unlatched when the vehicle rolled. Only afterward did the Millers learn they could purchase a car seat with a five-point harness capable of supporting up to 80 pounds and install it using the LATCH system, instead of seatbelts. LATCH, which stands for "lower anchors and tethers for children," is standard in 2002 and newer vehicles and provides rigid metal anchor points that parents can use to install LATCH-compatible car seats.

So the Millers produced a heartbreaking four-minute video, "Importance of a 5-Point Harness Carseat," warning parents about the possibility of seatbelt failure and urging them to keep their children in a car seat with a five-point harness as long as possible.

The Millers' video has been viewed almost two million times on YouTube, and its extensive reach has caused a stir among parents, child safety advocates and researchers. Some are concerned that the message parents may mistakenly take away from the video is, "Don't use seatbelts because they often fail."

Opinions differ on seatbelt failure
Seatbelt failure is a very rare occurrence, happening once or twice a year, according to a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Government statistics over the past eight years indicate that seatbelt failure of any kind — from a buckle releasing to a belt tearing — happened in about 0.05 percent of crashes involving children ages 14 and under.

Partners for Child Passenger Safety (PCPS) researchers at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia have conducted some 800 detailed investigations of crashes involving children. None of these, they say, have involved belt failure or the belt buckle system unlatching or breaking apart in a crash.

But some safety advocates see it differently.

"It's a widespread problem with seatbelts unlatching, but no one can quantify it," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "A crash is so dynamic and dead men tell no tales. How do you know whether the child is really buckled in or not?"

In addition, from January 2000 through November 2006 there have been 180 safety recalls involving seatbelts that don't work properly in both passenger and commercial vehicles. These involve everything from belt webbing that could be cut by another part rubbing against it, to buckles that seem to latch but don't, to shoulder belts that might not retract. These defects don't necessarily result in injuries or deaths, because often they are identified and corrected before any real-world failures occur.

However, there have been several lawsuits in recent years regarding seatbelts, claiming people have been injured or killed when seatbelts failed. Some cases are settled out of court. Jury verdicts from those that do go to trial have been mixed and are often appealed. But on February 15, the family of an 18-year-old woman, who claimed she was killed in a rollover crash when her seat belt unlatched, was awarded a $24 million judgment by a Texas jury. Seat belt manufacturer Honeywell International Inc. insists that the woman wasn't buckled in and will appeal.

A verdict that size "could help other plaintiffs and encourage people to look more closely at the issue of buckles unlatching," said Sean Kane, of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. In Rehoboth, Mass. Christine Miller, Kyle's mother, says she is also considering legal action, and isn't convinced by NHTSA/s or CHOP's statistics.

"Since posting the video I have received at least 50 e-mails from people telling me about a situation in which they personally experienced or witnessed seatbelt failure," she said.

Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. (a nonprofit organization dedicated to child passenger safety), feels the problem isn't widespread, but it does exist.

"I truly believe, if people who are buckling up were routinely dying or being severely injured because their belts were opening, that's not something that could be covered up," she said. "So from a logical standpoint, this is not something that is happening all the time. But does it happen? Yes."

Stay in a five-point harness
Safety experts agree that children are better off in a restraint with a five-point harness for as long as possible.

"Everyone, children and adults, would be safer in a five-point belt," said Jennifer Stockburger, senior automotive engineer at Consumers Union. They are mandatory safety equipment for racecar drivers, for example. Five-point belts spread crash forces more evenly, decrease the likelihood of occupants sliding out from under a belt (known as submarining) and hold occupants in place so airbags can protect them better, she said.

While five-point belts in passenger vehicles aren't considered practical, Ford Motor Company has developed driver-friendly four-point seatbelts which it hopes will replace its current three-point belts by 2010.

When children reach 40 pounds, usually around the age of 4, parents have typically been advised to "graduate" them from a toddler car seat to a booster seat. Booster seats raise a child up so that the seatbelts fit correctly, which means the lap belt sits over the bones of the hips and low on the lap instead of riding up around the waist. The shoulder belt sits across the collarbone and shoulder, not the neck.

Until recently, most toddler car seats were designed to hold children only up to 40 pounds. Yet many children, like Kyle Miller, reach 40 pounds before their 4th birthday. So while they exceed the maximum weight limits for most toddler car seats, they still aren't tall enough for a booster seat.

In response, several major car seat manufacturers have begun developing larger car safety seats, with five-point harnesses and a tether. Eight or nine models are available and they fit children up to 65 or 80 pounds. While generally expensive, these seats may be used for several years after the child turns 4 years old. SafetyBeltSafe's Tombrello cautions that the lower anchors of the car seat LATCH system should be used with these seats only until a child is 48 pounds; after that, the vehicle's seatbelts must be used to secure the car seat instead. (For specifics on how to install a car seat correctly, including a demonstration video, see "Installing a Car Seat".)

In addition to posting the YouTube video, Christine Miller launched the Kyle David Miller Foundation. An education and advocacy organization, it also provides high-weight-limit five-point harness car seats for families who cannot afford them.

Don't rush to the next restraint level
In talking to parents, Tombrello reminds them that the move to a "big kid" booster seat is not necessarily an upgrade, given the reduced level of protection a child receives from a standard three-point seatbelt.

Safety advocacy groups such as Public Citizen, a nonprofit public interest organization, have urged the federal government and automakers to require integrated child and booster seats with five-point harnesses in passenger vehicles. Until that happens, though, all parties agree that using any booster seat is better than using a seatbelt alone. PCPS research, for example, found that using a belt-positioning booster seat with a vehicle's lap and shoulder belts reduces the risk of injury for children ages 4 through 7 years by 59 percent, to less than 1.0 percent.

As the Millers' painful experience attests, though, parents face less-than-perfect options as they seek to transport their children safely.

"There are a lot of things that can happen in a crash," Tombrello said. "So you have to do your very best, but you can't beat yourself up."

For more information on when to use which car seat, see "How to Choose a Car Seat."