Safety equipment in your car

On the Road 4 min read

Seat belts

Today, seat belts are an accepted part of routine vehicle operation for millions of drivers and passengers. But the modern three-point automotive seat belt has only been around since 1959 – and it’s saved thousands of lives since its introduction.

The three-point seat belt was the brainchild of Swedish aircraft engineer Nils Ivar Bohlin, who, ironically, spent the early years of his career designing aircraft ejector seats. He designed the belt as a combination lap and diagonal belt positioned across the pelvic and rib cage.

Today’s seat belts combine Bohlin’s strong three-point harness with a relatively simple pendulum and ratchet mechanism that locks the belt in sudden-stop situations. This design helps improve the comfort of belt wearers, as the belt is not locked in position under normal operation.

As with any safety system, seat belt performance is dependent on proper use and fit. If the belt is not positioned correctly on the vehicle occupant’s body, it can fail to provide adequate safety in the event of a collision or rapid deceleration.

How to properly adjust your safety belt:

Always wear your seat belt, and insist that your passengers do the same. One non-restrained passenger can seriously injure others in the vehicle.

Seat belts help prevent internal injuries by spreading the force of a collision across two of the human body’s strongest areas: the pelvis and upper chest. To ensure the proper distribution of force, the lap belt should be positioned across the upper thighs, and the diagonal belt across the chest.

Never slip the diagonal belt behind your body – the lap belt alone cannot prevent you from being thrown forward or out of the vehicle. Use the lap belt at all times, as well. Without this restraint, your body would be thrown under the diagonal belt and into the dashboard or steering wheel.

Make sure your belt fits snugly against your body. If it is too loose, you could be injured by being thrown against the belt itself.

If your seat belts don’t seem to operate correctly, or you cannot adequately adjust them, return the car to a dealership or qualified repair shop for assistance.

If your vehicle is fitted only with lap belts (pre-1974 models), contact a dealership for an upgrade to a three-point harness. Aftermarket kits are available for many vehicle makes and models.


In 2003, seat belts saved an estimated 14,903 lives of passenger vehicle occupants over 4 years old. (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2005)

In 2003, 56 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts. (Source: NHTSA, 2005)

In 2003, 73 percent of restrained passenger vehicle occupants who were involved in fatal crashes survived. Forty-two percent of those not restrained survived. (Source: NHTSA, 2005)

Air bags

Automotive air bags are designed to help save lives. They are not, however, the sole source of protection to rely on while driving.

Air bags are supplemental passenger restraint systems designed to cushion the contact between a driver and the steering wheel, dashboard and, in some cars, vehicle doors. Air bags do not restrain the passenger in the seat, and they do not prevent backseat passengers from being thrown forward during a front-end collision.

Air bags save lives, but they do not reduce the importance of seat belt use. Because air bags deploy at explosive speeds, they can harm an unrestrained person — not using a seat belt or restraint can reduce air bag effectiveness due to the increase in the potentially damaging impact force between the vehicle occupant and the deploying air bag.

To practice good air bag safety, place children 12 years and under in the rear seat, with seat belts securely fastened. If a child is riding in the front seat when an airbag deploys, the impact potentially could be fatal.

Air bag safety facts:

  • Air bags have saved the lives of 17,130 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
    (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2005)
  • Seventy-one percent of cars and light trucks on U.S. roads have driver air bags. (Source: IIHS, 2005)
  • One million new vehicles with air bags are sold each month. (Source: NHTSA, 2005)

Head restraints

Neck injuries are reported by drivers in more than one in five rear-impact crashes. Although studies show that proper adjustment of a head restraint can prevent neck injuries, many drivers don’t take the time — or don’t know how — to adjust their head restraints.

Five steps to adjust your head restraint

Next time you get in the car, follow these simple steps to help protect yourself from neck injuries:

  • Whether you’re the driver or passenger, check out your head restraint before getting into the car. Get to know how it works. Does it adjust up and down? Does it tilt? Does it lock into place? Knowing how your head restraint works will help you find the best position for you.
  • Once you’re in the car, be sure your seat back is in an upright and comfortable driving or sitting position.
  • Face forward and reach behind you to adjust the height of your head restraint. In the optimal position, the top of the head restraint should be as high as the top of your head and no lower than 2.5 inches below the top of your head. If your restraint locks into position, make sure it is locked in after you’ve found the right height for you.
  • Still facing forward, feel how close the head restraint is to your head. In the optimal position, it should be as close as possible to the back of your head, no farther than 2.5 inches away. If your restraint tilts, this can help you find the right distance. Adjusting the height of your seat can help, too.
  • To be sure you’ve positioned your head restraint properly, you or someone in the car with you can use a ruler to measure the height and distance from your head.

Not all adjustable head restraints can be locked into place or positioned properly for all drivers. In these cases, do everything you can to protect yourself, such as adjusting your seat back to achieve proper head restraint position.

Facts About Head Restraints and Neck Injuries

  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety began head restraint testing in 1995 and found only 5 seats with good geometry. (IIHS 2004)
  • In 2004, the IIHS found 80 percent of head restraints in 2004 models to have good or acceptable geometry. (IIHS, 2004)

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