Dear Car Talk:
Why is it that my driver’s seatbelt always locks up when I pull it out, and then I have to let it go back in again and try again? -- Gregory
Shy seatbelt syndrome, I guess, Gregory. You don’t tell us what kind of car you have. Or, more importantly, what year it is. But I’m guessing you’ve got an older car.
Seatbelts have two things to accomplish. Primarily, during a crash, they’re trying to hold passengers in place and spread out the force of impact. That saves a lot of lives. Second, they’re trying to be easy and comfortable to use, so that people will actually wear them and allow those lives to be saved. So seatbelt manufacturers set out to engineer seatbelts that would do both those things.
In the earliest days of shoulder and lap belt combinations, you may remember that the whole thing just kind of hung there, until you draped it across your body. And you had to adjust it for your size, like the seatbelts we still use on airplanes. The problem was, if you wanted to lean forward to pick up the Big Mac you dropped between your knees, you had to unlatch the seatbelt in order to free yourself.
So the next step was an automatic seatbelt locking system that allowed people to move a bit while they were belted in. Automatic locking belts were required starting in 1996. They use one of two types of locking retractors. In each case, the seatbelt is wound around a spring-loaded spool, which spins as you pull on the belt.
On your car, Gregory, that spool has a centrifugal clutch. When you pull it slowly, it unspools. But if you pull on it quickly, the centrifugal force of the spinning spool activates a pawl that locks the spool in place.
The idea is that if everything’s fine, and you want to reach the radio to turn off Car Talk, as long as you do it slowly, the seatbelt will unspool and let you move. But if you get in a crash, and suddenly are thrown forward very quickly, the seatbelt will lock up and keep you from getting an indentation on your forehead that says “KIA.” Actually, it would read “AIK.”
The newer type of locking retractor uses an inertial switch, like your airbags use. There’s a small pendulum that detects acceleration and -- more importantly in this case -- deceleration. On a car that uses an inertial switch, you can pull on the seatbelt as hard or as fast as you want, and it’ll give you slack. But if the car suddenly decelerates -- like when you hit the back of a taco truck or slam on the brakes -- the inertial switch locks up the retractor and protects you.
In fact, it’s even more sophisticated than that on newer cars. On many cars, the inertial switch fires a pyrotechnic device that actually tightens up the seatbelt and cinches you in place in preparation for impact (called a seatbelt pretensioner), and then lets out some tension milliseconds later, during the crash, to keep the seatbelt from breaking your collar bone or causing chest injuries (called a load limiter). We’re even seeing airbags built into seatbelts now to further reduce injuries.
In your case, Gregory, I’m guessing you have an older centrifugal clutch system. Those can fail as they age and lock up too easily.
If you can still use the belt by pulling it out slowly, you may just want to live with it. Unless the seatbelt is still under warranty (check, they are often warrantied longer than the car itself) it’ll be expensive to replace.
But if it’s at the point where it takes you 15 tries, and you’re missing entire NFL seasons trying to get your seatbelt on, then it may be time to replace the whole belt, which comes with a new retractor mechanism.