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A properly positioned seat belt is low across the hips and pelvis, with the shoulder belt firmly across the chest and collarbone.

In an interview with MSN Autos, NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd explained: “Seat belts enable you to survive 50 percent of crashes. Seat belts and airbags together enable you to survive 60 percent.” NHTSA estimates more than 75,000 lives were saved and more than 1.5 million injuries were prevented in the United States by the use of seat belts since 1982.

Of course, seat belts must be worn—and worn correctly—to perform. Unfortunately, “only 68 percent of the population wears seat belts,” notes NHTSA spokeswoman, Liz Neblett. The popular myth that seat belts are unnecessary for short trips to the store or for other errands is dangerously wrong.

According to NHTSA research, 75 percent of all traffic deaths and injuries occur within 25 miles of victim's homes, at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour. Even a crash at only 12 mph can be fatal; being thrown against a dashboard in a 30-mph crash is like striking the ground after falling from a third-floor window.

How to Wear Seat Belts

To minimize the risk of of injury, position the seat belt snugly against your body's strongest areas.

  • Position lap belts low across the hips and pelvis—never across your stomach, especially if you are pregnant.
  • Position shoulder belts across the chest and collarbone—never against the front of the neck or face, or under the arms.
  • Allow no more than one inch of slack in shoulder belts.
  • Sit erect, with the seat back straight—safety belts cannot work and may cause injury in a crash if the seatback is reclined, if your back is away from the seat, or if your legs are curled beneath you.
  • Seat belts do not adequately protect small children and infants. Both require specially designed child safety seats.

    Proper positioning of seat belts may be a challenge for pregnant women, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Belts tend to ride up over pregnant abdomens. Researchers advise expectant moms to:

  • Move the seat as far back as possible.
  • Use pedal blocks, if possible, and position them appropriately to maximize the distance between the steering wheel and the abdomen.
  • Reduce travel, especially in the last months of pregnancy, to reduce exposure to crashes.
  • Travel as a passenger, rather than a driver, whenever possible.
  • Seat belts are standard equipment in all modern passenger vehicles, including sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. More and more vehicles provide three-point belts for all passengers, even the middle rider in the back seat. These belts, created by a Volvo safety engineer in the 1950s, help restrain more of a rider's body—the shoulders and upper body— than do plain lap belts.

    What to Look for When Buying a New Vehicle

    • Inertia reels. These cylinders, located at the base of belts, contain extra belt material rolled on a spool. The spool turns freely during normal driving, keeping the shoulder belt loose so you can move your upper body. In an emergency stop or a crash, a pendulum inside the reel plunges forward, locking the spool instantly.
    • Height adjusters. These movable clips allow anchoring a shoulder belt at a suitable height so it does not touch the neck.
    • Crash tensioners. These tighten seat belts further in an emergency, counteracting stretch that can occur in a belt and its adjusting mechanisms during a crash or emergency stop.
    • Webbing grabbers. These prevent stretch by clamping belts where they exit inertia reels.
    • Three-point safety belts. These are becoming standard equipment at all seating positions, especially the center position of the rear seat, where more and more automakers are replacing the lap belt with a shoulder belt, even in entry-level cars. See if the vehicle you're looking at has one.

    If small children or infants will ride in the vehicle, make sure seat belts will securely hold child safety seats in their correct positions.

    What to Look for When Buying a Used Vehicle

    • Front-seat lap and shoulder belts, even on older vehicles. Lap belts have been standard features on cars since the late 1960s; front-seat shoulder belts began appearing widely in the early 1970s.Check that belts are securely mounted and that they operate and adjust smoothly.
    • Rear-seat lap belts. These have been standard features on cars since the late 1960s. Be sure they are mounted securely to the vehicle frame, and that they operate and y to the vehicle frame, and that they operate and adjust smoothly.
    • Rear-seat shoulder belts. As of December 11, 1989, factory-installed shoulder belts for rear-seat positions beside windows became mandatory in all passenger cars (except convertibles) manufactured after that date. On September 1, 1991, the rule was extended to include convertibles, vans, light trucks, and multipurpose vehicles. There are also safety belts available as retrofit kits for most cars. If a used car you are considering is equipped with rear-seat shoulder belts, be sure they are anchored securely to the vehicle frame, and that they operate and adjust smoothly.
    • If small children or infants will ride in the vehicle, make sure seat belts will securely hold child safety seats in their correct positions.

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