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How Common are Car Accidents with Defective Seat Belts?

Posted on: February 25, 2021

Seat belts save more lives than all other vehicle technologies combined, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA reports that wearing a seat belt can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. However, when seat belts are defective, they can cause or fail to protect users from serious injury. Those who are injured by faulty seat belts are urged to contact an experienced car accident lawyer for assistance with their case, as they may be eligible for compensation from the manufacturer or other liable parties.

Seat Belt Usage in the United States

The NHTSA’s National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) shows that seat belt usage in the United States has generally increased over the past decade. In 2019, the nationwide seat belt use rate was 90.7 percent, with 26 states achieving a belt use rate of 90 percent or higher. New Jersey’s seat belt usage rate that year was 90.2 percent, just slightly lower than the national average.

In 2017, approximately 47 percent of the 37,133 people killed in motor vehicle accidents were not wearing seat belts. The NHTSA estimates that seat belts saved 14,955 lives that year and could have saved 2,549 additional lives if everyone had buckled up. Another NHTSA study of accidents from 1960 to 2012 reveals that seat belts saved 329,715 lives, more than air bags, energy-absorbing steering assemblies, electronic stability control, and other vehicle technologies combined.

How Do Seat Belts Fail?

Even when correctly positioned, seat belts may still fail to protect users from harm in a car accident. Defects, either in the seat belt’s design or manufacturing, are typically the cause of such failures. According to the NHTSA, positioning the lap belt and shoulder belt across the pelvis and rib cage, placing the shoulder belt across the middle of the chest, and resting the lap belt across the hips is the correct placement. The NHTSA also cautions drivers and passengers to never put the shoulder belt behind their shoulders or under their arms.

What are the Most Common Seat Belt Defects?

Defective seat belts can cause serious harm or exacerbate injuries arising as a result of the accident. Sometimes, a person may be even ejected from the car during an accident, which increases the risk of paralyzing or fatal injuries. Some of the most common seat belt defects include the following:

  • Inertial unlatching. Seat belts are supposed to withstand the force of an accident. However, when poorly designed, the buckle may release on impact. This is called inertial unlatching and is particularly common in high-speed collisions.  
  • False latching. False latching occurs when the buckle seems to be fully engaged but is not. In false latching cases, a user secures his or her seat belt only to have it come loose under pressure.
  • Defective webbing. Seat belts are composed of material designed to survive significant force without tearing. Ripped or torn webbing is often a sign of improper material or manufacturing.
  • Retractor failure. The force of an accident should trigger the seat belt retractor, which holds the user securely in place. Too much slack in the retractor can cause the occupant to be thrown about or from the vehicle.
  • Inadequate seat belts. Older model vehicles may have lap-only seat belts for rear-seat passengers. This type of seat belt is not as effective as those with shoulder straps and can therefore lead to otherwise preventable injuries in the event of an accident.

Injuries Caused by Defective Seat Belts

When they work properly, seat belts save lives and help mitigate the injuries sustained by victims of car accidents. However poorly designed or manufactured seat belts can cause serious injury or even death. Some common injuries caused or aggravated by defective seat belts include the following:

  • Brain injuries. Those injured in car accidents with defective seat belts may sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Sometimes, symptoms of a brain injury do not appear immediately, but rather take some time to surface. Therefore, even if there are no visible signs of injury, car accident victims are advised to seek immediate medical attention.
  • Whiplash. When a seat belt fails to hold a user securely in place, the force of a crash may cause whiplash, one of the most common injuries in car accidents. Whiplash occurs when a person’s neck whips back and forth rapidly and can lead to pain, stiffness, and limited range of motion.
  • Concussion. When a seat belt fails, the occupant may suffer a blow to his or her head, which can result in a concussion or TBI that can affect memory, concentration, balance, and coordination. As with other types of brain injuries, symptoms of a concussion may take hours or days to appear.
  • Lacerations. Lacerations, contusions, and abrasions are all common injuries resulting from car accidents. In accidents involving a failed seat belt, the victim may suffer lacerations and other minor injuries from being thrust around the inside of the vehicle, broken glass, or other flying objects.
  • Broken bones. Fractures and broken bones often occur in car accidents, especially those that are high impact. The bones most likely to be injured in a car crash include the femur, rib, hip, pelvis, skull, wrist, arm, leg, back, and clavicle bones.
  • Spinal cord injuries. Car accidents with defective seat belts may lead to spinal cord injuries. The impact of such injuries is typically long-term and can lead to paralysis or partial movement impairment.
  • Internal injuries. When a driver or passenger is slammed against the inside of the car or into the airbags, he or she may sustain internal injuries. Internal bleeding, broken ribs, punctured or bruised organs, and abdominal aorta rupture are some common types of internal injuries from car accidents.
  • Disfigurement. Scarring or disfigurement may occur as a result of lacerations or burn injuries sustained in a car accident. Such permanent injuries can cause mental trauma and affect a person’s quality of life.
  • Back and neck injuries. In addition to whiplash, car accident victims may also suffer other back and neck injuries. Musculoskeletal injuries can be debilitating and often require physical therapy or surgery.

How can I File a Seat Belt Defect Lawsuit?

Automobile manufacturers have a duty to produce crashworthy vehicles that protect occupants from harm in the event of an accident. When a faulty or defective vehicle part such as a seat belt causes an accident, the auto manufacturer may be held liable for any injuries stemming from the accident. An injured plaintiff may pursue compensation from the manufacturer, and any other parties involved such as suppliers and distributors, by filing a products liability lawsuit.

To prove liability and therefore obtain compensation, products liability plaintiffs must generally show that there was a dangerous defect in the design or manufacture of the seat belt that caused their injuries. Seat belt design or manufacturing defects may include substandard materials used for webbing, poorly designed buckles, and other oversights that pose an unreasonable risk of harm to users.

Successful claimants may recover economic damages including compensation for medical expenses and lost wages, and non-economic damages such as compensation for pain and suffering. In New Jersey, seat belt defect lawsuits must be filed within two years from the date of the accident; therefore, it is important to contact a qualified car accident lawyer as soon as possible.

Freehold Car Accident Lawyers at Ellis Law Advocate for Those Injured by Defective Seat Belts

If you were injured by a defective seat belt, contact the Freehold car accident lawyers at Ellis Law. Our experienced legal team can help determine the cause of your accident and identify all responsible parties to get you the compensation you deserve. Call us at 732-308-0200 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients in Freehold, East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York City.