Inflatable Seat Belts: What Used Car Buyers Need to Know


If you’re buying a used vehicle, you should be aware of inflatable seat belts that are still found in some 2011 to 2020 car models. Inflatable seat belts are not inherently dangerous because the technology is safer than the regulation seat belts found in many rear seats. However, if you own a child car seat, you may want to check your car seat owner’s manual to see if it is compatible with them.

Why did Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus stop using this seat belt technology in new cars? What was the reason these brands felt the need to create them? We will answer these questions and discuss the crash test data that revealed a safety defect in many rear seat belts. And finally, we’ll cover the controversies and customer dissatisfaction that caused at least one manufacturer to abandon them.

This article will answer many of your questions about inflatable seat belts.

What are inflatable seat belts?

In 2009, Ford Motor Company announced an innovative new safety technology called “inflatable seat belts” as an option for its 2011 Ford Explorer. Popular Mechanics magazine. Ford executives said the technology was “compatible with child safety seats and booster seats and is already popular with Explorer buyers who are parents.” They also noted that the technology “would take a lot of trial and error and testing over several years to prove itself.”

Ford’s inflatable seat belts placed an additional layer of material that encased small airbags along the chest and waist to inflate in a frontal collision on impact. Ford claims the device “distributes forces across the torso to reduce the risk of seatbelt-related injuries.” The increase in seat belt related injuries inspired the creation of inflatable seat belts.

READ RELATED STORIES: Child car seats – Things to consider when choosing a new car

How to recognize inflatable seat belts?

Ford inflatable seat belt connector

Two features can help you recognize an inflatable rear seat belt. One is the double-layered strap, which conceals the small airbag inside. The other is the rounded belt buckle with a unique solid metal connector. You will see the words “inflatable belt” sewn into the belt of Ford vehicles with the feature.

What other car manufacturers have used inflatable seat belts?

Shortly after Ford launched this new device, Mercedes-Benz adopted the technology for its S-Class. Later, Lexus used inflatable seat belts in the 2012 LFA supercar and added a side head airbag to inside the straps. Typically, these airbags addressed a deeper concern about seat belt-related injuries occurring in the back seat during a crash.

What are load limiters and pretensioners?

It wasn’t that the rear seat belts were all bad, but that front seat belt technology had improved dramatically over the years. A 2019 IIHS rear seat safety study highlighted the lack of load limiters and pretensioners in many rear seat belt systems. These belts could cause abdominal, chest or spinal injuries to children and the elderly on impact depending on the force of the crash. And since federal safety standards didn’t require them, not all automakers installed them.

Pretensioners and load-limiting technology have finally made their way into most rear seats. Many brands have applied these two essential features to the rear seats since around 2008. They are considered to be the most effective seat belt safety technology. After the release of 2019 IIHS crash test data, automakers felt more pressure to include them in all seating positions.

Pretenders

The pretensioner tightens the seat belt when the crash occurs, quickly limiting the occupant’s initial forward movement.

Load limiters

After the pretensioner tightens the occupant on the initial impact, the impact pushes the body sharply forward. The load limiter then allows a certain “descent” necessary in the reservoir. Load limiters release the belt enough to minimize seat belt damage to the shoulder, neck and rib cage.

REMARK: These products help prevent seat belt related injuries. However, according to the IIHS, even without pretensioners, load limiters or inflatable seat belts, it is still safer for children to ride in the back seat than in the front seat.

Why did automakers discontinue inflatable seat belts?

After the launch of the Ford Explorer in 2011, child car seat manufacturers began communicating directly with consumers. Many have warned against using inflatable seat belts with their car seat products. Beyond reviews citing a lack of testing by NHTSA, many car seats simply won’t work with inflatable seat belts due to the thickness of the webbing.

Ford says it crash tested each type of child car seat using child crash test dummies of different sizes before the Explorer was launched in 2011. But NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has decided not to crash test all inflatable seat belts with every car seat (over 249). This situation left Ford dependent on the more than 40 child car seat manufacturers to individually decide whether they would recommend their product be safe with inflatable seat belts.

In the final analysis, Ford opted to discontinue the option of inflatable seat belts for its 2020 models and instead included seat belt pretensioners and load limiter technology in their rear seats.

Which used vehicles currently have inflatable seat belts?

Used car sales for 2021 were 40.9 million units, compared to new car sales at 14.9 million vehicles. If you’re interested in buying a used car and plan to use a child car seat, you might be wondering which used car includes inflatable seat belts in the rear. Most of the vehicles below (as well as the named model years) had an option for these inflatable seat belts, which means they are not in all models. However, for Mercedes-Benz, the S-Class models mentioned below included them as standard.

According to The Car Seat Lady blog, here is a list of used vehicles that offer inflatable seat belts (from newest to oldest):

Model years Make/Model/Seat Configuration
2018 – 2020 Ford Expedition (7 seats)
2018 – 2020 Ford Expedition (8 seats)
2018 – 2020 Lincoln Navigator (8 seats)
2018 – 2020 Lincoln Navigator (7 seater)
2017 – 2020 Lincoln Continental without rear seating group (5 seats)
2017 – 2020 Lincoln Continental with rear seating group (5 seats)
2016 – 2020 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (4-seater)
2015 – 2020 Ford F-Series (F-150, F-250, F-350, F-450, F-550, F-650)
2015 – 2020 Ford F-Series SuperCab (5-seater)
2015 – 2020 Ford F-Series SuperCab (6-seater)
2015 – 2020 Ford F-Series SuperCrew (6-seater)
2015 – 2018 Ford Edge
2016 – 2018 Lincoln MKX
2013 – 2020 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (5 seats)
2014 – 2019 Ford Fusion
2013 – 2019 Lincoln MKZ
2012 – 2019 Ford Flex (7 seats)
2012 – 2019 Ford Flex (6 seats)
2013- 2018 Lincoln MKT (6 seater)
2013 – 2018 Lincoln MKT (7 seater)
2013 – 2018 Lincoln MKT (5-seater)
2011 – 2019 Ford Explorer (7 seats)
2011 – 2019 Ford Explorer (6 seats)

Are there any workarounds for inflatable seat belts?

All is not lost if you own a vehicle with inflatable seat belts and have a small child. Not all situations require the use of seat belts to install a child car seat. We found two workarounds to consider.

Man installs child car seat on LATCH system1. Use the LATCH system instead of seat belts

You can bypass the use of seat belts if your vehicle’s LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) attachment at the base of your back seat lines up with your car seat. Manufacturers recommending against inflatable belts with their infant seats generally recommend using the LATCH instead if your child is within the limited weight range (usually under 50 pounds).

2. Find a compatible child car seat

You can find many child seats on the market that work with inflatable seat belts. But it’s a good idea to try them on before you buy them. Make sure the manual says they recommend using the product with inflatable seat belts. Also, if your seat includes a “lock” feature that wedges the seat belt firmly into the base of the car seat, it probably won’t work due to the thickness of the webbing.

Since its initial launch, inflatable seat belts have come under pressure from the child car seat community. In 2017, Ford Motor Company recalled 117,000 Ford trucks for defective inflatable seat belts due to certain undersized bolts. Although Ford contacted owners with the recall to address the issue, further reputational damage reduced consumer confidence in the technology.

So if you own or are considering owning a vehicle with inflatable seat belts, do your homework, read the manual, and assess the situation carefully – but know that these seat belts are not inherently dangerous to own. And, in a used car, it could still protect your adult passengers and older children from seat belt-related injuries.

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