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Transportation & Infrastructure

Safety group starts new rating system for seat belt warnings to reduce crash deaths

driver wears seat belt
Chris Martin
/
Unsplash
IIHS hopes new ratings will encourage automakers to make seat belt warnings louder and more persistent

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says too many people are still dying in car crashes because of not wearing a seat belt.

David Harkey is president of the safety group. Harkey said a great deal of progress has been made in the past two decades in increasing the rate of seat belt compliance, which has gone from about 60% to 90% of drivers.

But Harkey said that's still not good enough — not when nearly half of front passengers who die in crashes were not wearing seat belts.

He said the institute hopes to reduce those deaths with a new rating system. The federal standard is far too weak, he said.

"The federal standards that are currently in place only require an audible warning to the driver for about 4 to 8 seconds. We think anything below 8 seconds is poor."

Harkey said his group's research shows loud, persistent warnings are very effective in getting people to buckle up.

IIHS recently tested 26 small and midsize SUVs for seat belt warning efficacy, and only two vehicles — both manufactured by Subaru — received the top rating.

Going forward, cars will need to have a loud, 90-second seat-belt warning to get a top rating from the institute.

"It needs to have a level above the ambient noise level in the cabin, and it needs to have a pitch or frequency that is easily identifiable to the human ear," he said.

The cars will also need to issue a separate "second row, rear-seat status identification." That will be a visible and audible warning, so the driver is aware that a back seat passenger has unbuckled their seat belt.

Harkey said for now, the new rating will be separate from the requirements to receive one of IIHS's "Top Safety Pick awards." But if automakers do not respond fairly quickly to improve their seat-belt warnings, he said that might be added to the requirements to receive the coveted award.

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