Inflatable Seat Belts: What Used Car Buyers Need To Know

Ford Inflatable Seat Belt Hanging On Side
Ford Inflatable Side Hanging Seat BeltIf you are buying a used vehicle, you should know which inflatable seat belts can still be found on some model cars from 2011 to 2020. Inflatable seat belts are not inherently dangerous, as the technology is safer than the regulated seat belts found on many rear seats. However, if you own a child car seat, you can check your car seat owner’s manual to see if it’s compatible with it.

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’ll answer those questions and discuss the crash test data that revealed a safety flaw in many such rear seat belts. And finally, we’ll discuss the controversies and customer dissatisfaction that pressured at least one manufacturer to shut down.

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 the 2011 Ford Explorer. At the time, it was praised in the press and even won the Breakthrough Product Award from Popular Mechanics magazine. Ford executives said the technology is “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 “require extensive trial and error and over several years to prove.”

Ford’s inflatable seat belts placed an extra layer of material that enveloped small airbags along the chest and waist to inflate during a head-on collision. Ford says the device “distributes forces across the torso to reduce the risk of seat belt-related injuries.” The increase in seat belt-related injuries inspired the creation of inflatable seat belts.

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

How do you recognize inflatable seat belts?

Ford Inflatable Seat Belt Connector

Ford Inflatable Seat Belt Connector

Two features can help you identify an inflatable rear seat belt. One is the double-thick strap, which hides the small airbag inside. The other is the rounded belt buckle with a unique solid metal connector. You will see the words “Inflatable Belt” stitched onto the belt in Ford vehicles with the feature.

Which other car manufacturers used inflatable seat belts?

Shortly after Ford launched this new device, Mercedes-Benz took over the technology for its S-Class. Later, Lexus used inflatable seat belts in the 2012 LFA supercar and added a side head airbag on the inside of the tires. In general, these inflatables responded to a greater concern about seat belt injuries in the back seat during an accident.

What are load limiters and belt tensioners?

It wasn’t that the rear seat belts were all bad, but the technology for the front seat belts had improved considerably over the years. A Backseat Safety Study by IIHS in 2019 shone light on the lack of load limiters and pretensioners in many rear seat belt systems. These seat belts can cause abdominal, chest, or spinal injuries in children and older adults in a crash, depending on the force of the crash. And because federal safety standards didn’t require them, not all auto companies installed them.

Belt tensioners and belt force limiters have finally made their way to most rear seats. Many brands have been applying these two essential features to rear seats since about 2008. They are considered the most effective seat belt technology. After the 2019 IIHS crash test data came out, automakers felt more pressure to include them in all seating positions.

seat belt tensioners

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

load limiters

After the belt tensioner has tightened the occupant in the first crash, the impact abruptly pushes the body forward. The load limiter then allows some necessary “giving” in the limitation. Load limiters loosen the belt enough to minimize damage to the seat belt on the shoulder, neck and rib cage.

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

Why did car manufacturers stop using inflatable seat belts?

After the launch of Ford Explorer in 2011, car seat manufacturers began communicating directly with consumers. Many warned against using inflatable seat belts with their car seats. Beyond the critics who cite a lack of testing by: NHTSA, many car seats just wouldn’t work with inflatable seat belts due to the thickness of the straps.

Ford says it crash-tested every type of car seat before launching Explorer in 2011, using child-sized crash-test dummies of various sizes. But the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) decided not to perform crash tests on all inflatable seat belts on every (more than 249) car seat. Because of this situation, Ford relied on the more than 40 car seat manufacturers to individually decide whether to recommend their product to be safe with inflatable seat belts.

Ultimately, Ford chose to discontinue the inflatable seat belt option for its 2020 models and instead include pre-tensioners and belt force limiters in the rear seats.

Which used vehicles currently have inflatable seat belts?

Used car sales for 2021 stood at 40.9 million units, compared to new car sales at 14.9 million vehicles. If you are interested in If you are buying a used car and planning to use a child car seat, you may be wondering which used car has inflatable seat belts in the back. Most of the vehicles listed below (along with the model years listed) had an option for these inflatable seat belts, meaning they are not included in every model. For Mercedes-Benz, however, these were standard on the S-Class models listed below.

According to the car seat lady blog, here’s a list of used vehicles that offered inflatable seat belts (from newer to older):

model years Make/model/seat configuration
2018 – 2020 Ford Expedition (7 seater)
2018 – 2020 Ford Expedition (8 seater)
2018 – 2020 Lincoln Navigator (8 seater)
2018 – 2020 Lincoln Navigator (7 seater)
2017 – 2020 Lincoln Continental without rear seat package (5 seater)
2017 – 2020 Lincoln Continental with rear seat package (5 seater)
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-seater)
2014 – 2019 Ford Fusion
2013 – 2019 Lincoln MKZ
2012 – 2019 Ford Flex (7 seater)
2012 – 2019 Ford Flex (6 seater)
2013- 2018 Lincoln MKT (6 seater)
2013 – 2018 Lincoln MKT (7 seater)
2013 – 2018 Lincoln MKT (5 seater)
2011 – 2019 Ford Explorer (7 seater)
2011 – 2019 Ford Explorer (6 seater)

Are there solutions 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 call for the use of seat belts to install a car child seat. We have found two solutions to consider.

Man installs car seat on LATCH systemMan installs 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 on the underside of your back seat aligns with your car seat. Manufacturers who advise against inflatable belts with their child seats usually recommend using the LATCH instead if your child falls within the limited weight range (usually less than 50 pounds).

2. Find a compatible car seat

There are many child seats on the market that work with inflatable seat belts. But it’s a good idea to try them out before buying. Make sure the manual states that they recommend the product with inflatable seat belts. If your seat has a “lockout” feature that clamps the seat belt securely into the base of the car seat, it probably won’t work due to the thickness of the belt.

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

So, if you own or plan to own 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 can still protect your adult and older children from seat belt injuries.

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