In the initial round of testing of seat belt reminder systems in 26 small and midsize SUVs, only two earned the top rating – the Ascent and Forester, both Subarus. Nineteen of the models evaluated received a marginal or poor rating.
As nearly half of the drivers and front seat passengers killed in crashes in 2019 weren’t belted, getting those seat belt holdouts to buckle up could save as many as 1,500 lives a year, and more persistent alerts may be a way to help do that.
Those are the results of a new test program announced last month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry.
“By now everybody knows that seat belts save lives when they are used,” David Harkey, president of the Insurance Institute, said in a statement, noting that most Americans use their seat belts, especially in the front seat, but the small number who don’t translates into a lot of fatalities.
“Our research shows that effective seat belt reminders can also save lives by getting those who aren’t diligent about belt use to buckle up,” Harkey added. “These new ratings are designed to push manufacturers to realize that potential.”
The goal of the evaluations is to encourage manufacturers to improve their seat belt reminders to exceed federal requirements by adopting more effective and consistent standards, the safety group said, noting that much of the time, people simply forget to buckle-up.
Seat belt reminder systems in each of the 26 SUVs tested were rated good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on volume, duration and timing of the audible alerts, as well as visual indicators and presence of systems in both front and back seats.
Only two Subaru models, the Ascent and Forester, earned a good rating. Five others, the Hyundai Palisade, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Murano, Nissan Pathfinder and Nissan Rogue, earned acceptable ratings.
Seven more were rated marginal: the Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Jeep Wrangler, Mazda CX-5, Mazda CX-9, Toyota RAV4 and Toyota Highlander.
Twelve received a poor rating: the Audi Q3, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox, Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Escape, Ford Explorer, Honda CR-V, Honda HR-V, Honda Pilot, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, Volkswagen Atlas and Volvo XC40.
Typical criteria that caused lower ratings include: audible alerts that did not start soon enough or were not loud enough to be heard over background noise, and the absence of seat belt reminders for the second row.
Previous IIHS research found that more noticeable and persistent alerts were much more effective at getting drivers to buckle up than minimal reminders, and could increase belt use by as much as 34 %.
“The gold standard is an alert that’s impossible to ignore,” Sean O’Malley, the Insurance Institute’s senior test coordinator, who conducted the evaluations, said in a statement.
The only vehicles that received the top rating of good, the Ascent and Forester, featured audible alerts that the human ear perceives as about 4 times louder than the ambient vehicle noise. These alerts do not end until the unbuckled belt is fastened.
The safety group said that some simple software adjustments could probably improve many of the vehicles.
“Most of these problems don’t require new hardware,” O’Malley added. “Even among the vehicles that earn poor ratings, it’s possible that simply lengthening the duration of the audible alert could do the trick.”
For more information about the test program and specific ratings for the SUVs tested, click here.