Inflatable seat belts have been around for a few years but they’re just starting to gain international traction now—and soon they may be a common feature in almost all new cars.The groundbreaking seat belts, which function like air bags yet have the restraint of seat belts, first made their appearance in the 2011 Ford Explorer. Now Ford and other manufacturers, like Mercedes Benz, are installing them in other makes and models across Europe and the U.S., according to the Daily Mail.
If there’s a crash, the seat belts blow up in a mere 40 milliseconds, quick enough to save the lives of the passengers who are buckled in.
The belts were designed to protect passengers sitting in the back seat, especially children and the elderly, who are more vulnerable to head, chest and neck injuries. The blow-up belts spread the force of the crash over five times more area of the body than conventional seat belts, according to a statement from Ford. This helps reduce pressure on the chest and helps control head and neck motion for rear seat passengers.
“We’ve tested the system extensively using our entire crash test dummy family and it offers extra protection over the standard rear seatbelt system,” Joerg Doering, a Ford seat belt engineer, said in a June press release.
Here’s how it works:
- When the car’s sensors detect a crash, the seat belt inflates with compressed gas stored in a cylinder below the back seat.
- The seat belt inflates to five times the size of a regular safety belt and protects passengers, just like a normal airbag would, in about 40 milliseconds.
- “The inflatable belt’s accordion-folded bag breaks through the belt fabric as it fills with air, expanding sideways across the occupant’s body,” Ford stated in a 2011 press release.
- After the seat belt blows up, it remains inflated for several seconds before letting the air seep out through the pores of the airbag.
Photo: Ford Motor Company
The inflatable seat belt is slightly thicker than a normal seat belt, as the inflation device is hidden inside the vinyl strap. Some say that the extra padding in the belt makes it more comfortable. In a recent press release, Ford stated that 90 per cent of people they surveyed in a focus group said that the inflatable belt was “similar to or more comfortable than a conventional belt because they feel padded and softer.”
Both Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have not done significant enough studies to comment on the potential long term impact of the inflatable seatbelts, according to Charles Fields of Consumer Reports and Kristin Nevels of the IIHS. However, Consumer Reports does seem to approve of Ford’s testing process. In a recent article, they wrote that “an inflatable belt does offer the potential for added protection to rear seat passengers both young and old.” We know that seat belts already save 11,000 lives a year, according to the NTSHA. The new inflatable seat belts are bound to save even more lives. And the accolades for the belt keep coming in: The Explorer earned a five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The technology is working so well that Ford has announced it will feature the option on the 2013 Flex and the 2013 Lincoln MKT. Ford has stated that they eventually plan to offer inflatable seat belt technology in all new vehicles around the world, and Mercedes-Benz announced that they will install a similar technology, called a BeltBag, in some of their models within the next year. It seems like a logical step for other car manufacturers to follow suit.
Sooner rather than later, all cars will likely have some version of the inflatable seat belt. Mercedes was the first company to install air bags in its vehicles 25 years ago and Digital Trends said that “features on a new S-Class,” like inflatable seat belts, “will be standard equipment on cars 20 years from now.” Moreover, TopSpeed.com wonders “how many years this [inflatable seat belts] will remain an optional feature before the NHTSA decides that this needs to be standard in all cars.”
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