Prevent Strangulation – learn how to “lock” the seat belt

Kids will be kids.  Strapped in with nothing to do, kids will find something – anything – to play with.  Unfortunately, several dozen kids have nearly strangled to death after finding an unused shoulder belt, and in the midst of playing with it, wrapped it around their neck.

You might be thinking: “Why can’t you simply unwrap the belt?”  Virtually every seat belt found in the back seat of cars since 1996 here in the US has a locking mode – whereby when you pull the shoulder belt out to the very end, the seat belt no longer moves in and out freely, but rather will only get shorter, not longer.  When the children play with the seat belts, they inadvertently switch the shoulder belt into this locking mode – and once in the locking mode, the belt only gets shorter, but can not be lengthened no matter how hard you pull.  With the belt in this locking mode, it is very difficult for the child – and even the parents – to free the belt from the child’s neck (a belt cutter, knife, or scissors has been used in most cases to cut the belt and free the child).

The New York Times Magazine featured an article by Matt Bai, where he writes of his own harrowing experience where his 3-year-old son Ichi nearly strangled to death while playing with the unused shoulder belt in the center seat of their vehicle.  An 8 year old boy in New York recently came very close to dying – were it not for several police officers who happened to be very nearby.  A 5 year old girl recently came within seconds of strangling to death – and was rescued when a neighbor was able to find a pair of scissors to cut the belt free from around the child’s neck.  


1. Make sure any shoulder belts within your child’s reach are switched to their locking mode.

2. Keep seat belt cutters in your glove box – in case your child does figure out how to wrap the belt around their neck 

Keep a Seat Belt Cutter in your glove box

Safety Belt Safe has a fantastic easy-to-print tip sheet on how to keep kids safe from entanglement.

Photo above (copyright Heather Corley 2009) – is from a great article on

A few tips:

  • Teach children that seat belts are not toys.
  • Be aware that most shoulder belts have a retractor with two locking modes – an emergency locking mode and an automatic locking mode.
    • To lock the retractor (i.e. switch it from the emergency to automatic locking mode): Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt all the way out.  As the belt goes back into the retractor, a ratcheting (clicking) sound may be heard. The belt cannot be loosened without unbuckling the belt and letting most of it go back into the retractor.
  • For any child:
    • Buckle any nearby shoulder-lap belts that are unused or holding a car seat.  Slowly, without yanking, pull the shoulder belt out to the very end.  As you let the belt go back in you will usually hear a ratcheting (clicking) sound – this is normal.
  • For kids riding in shoulder-lap belts (with or without booster seats)
    • Teach the child to NEVER play with their belt.  Once they are buckled in, they should not be touching their belt.
    • Some parents may consider “locking” the seat belt on the child (i.e. pulling the shoulder belt all the way out and engaging the seat belt’s built in locking feature).  Locking the seat belt has the potential to increase injury in a crash as with the belt locked, there is a greater chance of the child sliding under the lap belt (often called submarining).  Therefore, we suggest locking the seat belt on a child in a booster/seat belt ONLY if the parent feels that the child can not be trusted to not play with the seat belt AND there is no way for the child to ride in a 5-point-harness car seat instead of a booster/seat belt.
  • For kids riding in 5-point harness car seats:
    • If you have used the vehicle’s shoulder-lap belt to secure the child seat to the car:
      • Follow installation instructions in the manuals for the child seat and the vehicle.
      • After installation, make sure that the shoulder belt is either locked tight without slack or that it moves freely in and out and cannot be locked.
    • If you have used the lower LATCH connectors to secure the child seat to the car:Always check the owner’s manual to your vehicle & child car seat as they may have specific instructions.
      • First, buckle the shoulder–lap belt and lock the retractor, and remove the slack in the belt so it lies flat against the vehicle seat.
      • Install the child seat with the lower LATCH connectors according to instructions.
      • Note: Some vehicle manufacturers state the unused belt should be released from the buckle after the safety seat is installed.
5 Responses to “Prevent Strangulation – learn how to “lock” the seat belt”
  1. Brendon Ross says:

    Wow. Thank you very much for the info. After reading a few of these comments I am definitely going to be putting these tips into action. You may possibly be a life saver.

    Thanks again!

  2. Lauren says:

    Wow, I actually came on your site to specifically see if the shoulder portion of the seatbelt that is used to secure my 2-yera-olds Britax Blvd (RF) should be locked or unlocked since my manual does not say. (We use the built-in lock off on the carseat itself.) I guess this post answers my question and tells me the real reason that it actually should stay lock. Thank you and I’ll be sure to lock the back passanger seatbelts as well now too.

  3. hawk says:

    >Just had a horrible experience with our five year old in our RAV. Wife pulled up and my daughter unlatched herself. We're not sure exactly what happened next but the belt was wrapped around her neck. When she realized that she couldn't get her head out of the "noose" she panicked making the noose tighter and tighter. I was able to race in the house and get out the scissors and cut her loose, but it was a scary couple of minutes. I'm a bit flabbergasted that we couldn't manually release the belt and we would have been in serious trouble if we hadn't been sitting in the driveway.

  4. >Cutes & Scoots Show: What you have discovered in your Sequoia is the case in every vehicle – when the shoulder belt goes in to a certain point, the belt switches from the automatic locking mode back to the emergency mode. In some vehicles it switches with a lot of the belt still remaining (as it sounds like is the case in your Sequoia) – whereas in others you have to let basically every inch of the belt back in before it will switch back. What I would recommend is to buckle the seat belt before installing the car seat keeping a fair amount of slack in the lap belt, install the car seat as you usually would with LATCH (the car seat will compress the vehicle's lap belt and keep the slack that you have put there – so that the belt does not switch out of the locking mode), then engage the locking mechanism on the seat belt by pulling the belt all the way out. I'm not sure if my description made sense – if you are confused, email me at and I am happy to try and explain over the phone (which is usually easier than trying to explain in a written format). Best, Alisa

  5. >My SUV (a Toyota Sequoia) has 3 LATCHes across the middle row and thus I install my 2 little boys using the LATCH instead of the seat belt. Both my sons are Rear facing still. 1 is 3 yrs old and the other is 11 months. I noticed my 3 yr old playing with the shoulder belt one day and immediately corrected him. When I saw your post about locking it, I tried doing this. It appears that my vehicle only keeps the should belt retracted and locked up until a certain point. After almost all of the belt is back in the retractor area it releases again as if it was completely loose. Ever heard of this? Any suggestions? I tried buckling the belt in the 3rd seat space (not for the seats that are used as that would eb a total no no) and because there is no body in the seat it acts the same way. I thought I might get around this issue by buckling it and adding some length. No go. Idea? Just combat the issue with correction and educate the children? (which of course I'd do regardless.) Just wondering if you had heard of this or seen it before.

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