The fatal seatbelt mistake

Animated graphic of seatbelt clicking into place.

Clare Barry

Posted March 29, 2019

The shocking statistics about seatbelts and the road toll.

As the first place in the world to make seatbelt use compulsory, it might come as a surprise to learn that Victorians are still dying on our roads without belting up.

In five of the past 10 years, more than 20 per cent of the drivers and passengers killed on Victorian roads were not wearing seatbelts.

Last year the figure was 14 per cent, accounting for 18 of the state’s 131 motor vehicle occupant fatalities. All were male, two-thirds were killed in single-vehicle crashes, and 83 per cent of them were killed on rural roads.

It’s a familiar pattern in New Zealand, where about 90 people die every year because they’re not wearing a seatbelt, most of them young males.

The NZ Transport Agency is targeting this cohort through a hard-hitting road trauma campaign that recreates the injuries sustained by crash survivors using special effects make-up.

The Belted Survivors campaign features portraits of the young men showing wounds based on their post-crash photos, including deep cuts, black eyes and broken limbs. They have one mark in common – diagonal welts from the seatbelts that saved their lives.

Large-scale posters are placed in their home towns and at outdoor events, and the campaign was launched by the survivors themselves through their own social channels.

“We’re selling an undesirable product to these guys,” says NZ Transport Agency’s Rachel Prince. “Research told us they think seatbelt messages are for kids, for the elderly, for everyone else.”

RACV’s safety and education manager Elvira Lazar says it is shocking that so many people are still losing their lives because they didn’t wear a seatbelt.

“There is no excuse for not wearing a seatbelt. In a crash, it will absolutely make the difference between life and death.”

We asked RACV vehicles engineer Nick Platt what happens in a crash when you do – and don’t – wear a seatbelt, or you can watch the crash-test video above.

What does a seatbelt actually do?
In a crash it’s the seatbelt’s job to keep the occupant from moving around the cabin so they are less likely to hit hard bits of the car’s interior. A seatbelt also reduces the impact of force on the body by spreading it over the body’s stronger parts (pelvis and chest area). Seatbelts are designed to work together with airbags. In a crash, the seatbelt slows the speed of the occupant so they impact safely with the airbag.

So what happens if you don’t wear one?
In a crash, a front-seat occupant without a seatbelt will travel forward at the speed the vehicle was travelling until something stops them. This could be the steering wheel, dashboard or windscreen. In some crashes the person may be ejected from the vehicle.

What about back-seat passengers?
A back-seat passenger without a seatbelt would keep going forward until they hit something solid, invariably the front seat. In a severe crash, this impact is usually sufficient to break the seat. In this case, the front seatbelt has to restrain the front-seat occupant, the failed seat and rear occupant. Under this sort of load, the seatbelt might fail. Even after striking the seat in front, the momentum usually forces the rear occupant's upper body over the top of the seat. Apart from causing serious injuries, their head can strike a fatal blow to the front-seat occupant.

Does it matter how I wear a seatbelt?
Seatbelts should also be adjusted so that the lap portion lies across the bony section of the hips and the sash is across the chest and mid shoulder.