Friday, April 23, 2010

Prevent strangulation - yet another reason to "lock the belt" (i.e. switch the retractor to the automatic locking mode)

Kids will be kids.  Strapped in with nothing to do, kids will find something - anything - to play with.  Unfortunately, several dozen kids have nearly strangled to death after finding an unused shoulder belt, and in the midst of playing with it, wrapped it around their neck. 

Why can't you simply unwrap the belt, you might be thinking?  By pulling the shoulder belt out to the very end, the children have inadvertently switched the shoulder belt into a locking mode - one where the shoulder belt only gets shorter, but can not be lengthened no matter how hard you pull.  With the belt in this locking mode, it is very difficult for the child - and even the parents - to free the belt from the child's neck.

The New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, where he writes of his own harrowing experience where his 3-year-old son Ichi nearly strangled to death while playing with the unused shoulder belt in the center seat of their vehicle. 

Make sure any shoulder belts within your child's reach are switched to their locking mode. 
For a detailed explanation of this locking mode and how to switch the belt in and out of it, please see our earlier post here.  

Safety Belt Safe has a fantastic easy-to-print tip sheet on how to keep kids safe from entanglement.
Photo above (copyright Heather Corley 2009) - is from a great article on

A few tips:

  • Teach children that seat belts are not toys. 
  • Be aware that most shoulder belts have a retractor with two locking modes - an emergency locking mode and an automatic locking mode.
    • To lock the retractor (i.e. switch it from the emergency to automatic locking mode): Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt all the way out.  As the belt goes back into the retractor, a ratcheting (clicking) sound may be heard. The belt cannot be loosened without unbuckling the belt and letting most of it go back into the retractor.
  • For any child: 
    • Make sure that any shoulder belts nearby to the child are switched to their locked mode.
    • Buckle any nearby shoulder-lap belts.  Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt out to the very end.  As you let the belt go back in you will usually hear a ratcheting (clicking) sound - this is normal.
  • For kids riding in shoulder-lap belts (with or without booster seats)
    • After the child is buckled, slowly pull the shoulder belt out all the way to lock the retractor.  This will prevent the child from being able to wrap the belt around their neck.  Don't forget to snug the belt up after pulling it all the way out. 
  • For kids riding in 5-point harness car seats: 
    • If you have used the vehicle's shoulder-lap belt to secure the child seat to the car:
      • Follow installation instructions in the manuals for the child seat and the vehicle. 
      • After installation, make sure that the shoulder belt is either locked tight without slack or that it moves freely in and out and cannot be locked.
    • If you have used the lower LATCH connectors to secure the child seat to the car:
      • First, buckle the shoulder–lap belt and lock the retractor, and remove the slack in the belt so it lies flat against the vehicle seat. 
      • Install the child seat with the lower LATCH connectors according to instructions. 
      • Note: Some vehicle manufacturers state the unused belt should be released from the buckle after the safety seat is installed.
    • Always check the owner's manual to your vehicle & child car seat as they may have specific instructions.  


  1. My SUV (a Toyota Sequoia) has 3 LATCHes across the middle row and thus I install my 2 little boys using the LATCH instead of the seat belt. Both my sons are Rear facing still. 1 is 3 yrs old and the other is 11 months. I noticed my 3 yr old playing with the shoulder belt one day and immediately corrected him. When I saw your post about locking it, I tried doing this. It appears that my vehicle only keeps the should belt retracted and locked up until a certain point. After almost all of the belt is back in the retractor area it releases again as if it was completely loose. Ever heard of this? Any suggestions? I tried buckling the belt in the 3rd seat space (not for the seats that are used as that would eb a total no no) and because there is no body in the seat it acts the same way. I thought I might get around this issue by buckling it and adding some length. No go. Idea? Just combat the issue with correction and educate the children? (which of course I'd do regardless.) Just wondering if you had heard of this or seen it before.

  2. Cutes & Scoots Show: What you have discovered in your Sequoia is the case in every vehicle - when the shoulder belt goes in to a certain point, the belt switches from the automatic locking mode back to the emergency mode. In some vehicles it switches with a lot of the belt still remaining (as it sounds like is the case in your Sequoia) - whereas in others you have to let basically every inch of the belt back in before it will switch back. What I would recommend is to buckle the seat belt before installing the car seat keeping a fair amount of slack in the lap belt, install the car seat as you usually would with LATCH (the car seat will compress the vehicle's lap belt and keep the slack that you have put there - so that the belt does not switch out of the locking mode), then engage the locking mechanism on the seat belt by pulling the belt all the way out. I'm not sure if my description made sense - if you are confused, email me at and I am happy to try and explain over the phone (which is usually easier than trying to explain in a written format). Best, Alisa

  3. Just had a horrible experience with our five year old in our RAV. Wife pulled up and my daughter unlatched herself. We're not sure exactly what happened next but the belt was wrapped around her neck. When she realized that she couldn't get her head out of the "noose" she panicked making the noose tighter and tighter. I was able to race in the house and get out the scissors and cut her loose, but it was a scary couple of minutes. I'm a bit flabbergasted that we couldn't manually release the belt and we would have been in serious trouble if we hadn't been sitting in the driveway.