Seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  -  Photo:  cfarnsworth/Pixabay

Seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Photo: cfarnsworth/Pixabay

Research shows that more noticeable and persistent in-vehicle seat belt alerts could increase belt compliance by as much as 34%, preventing an estimated 1,500 fatalities a year. To that end, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has developed a new program that rates seat belt reminders as good, acceptable, marginal, or poor, based primarily on the volume, duration, and timing of the audible alert.

Some 26 small and midsize SUVs were the first vehicles evaluated under the new ratings program, and the majority did not fare well.

Federal standards specify that seat belt reminders must include an audible signal that lasts for 4 to 8 seconds total and a visual alert that lasts at least 60 seconds whenever the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled. However, IIHS research indicates that it takes more noticeable and persistent alerts to get people who ordinarily skip the seat belt to buckle up.

Under the IIHS program, for a reminder systems to earn a good rating it must meet very specific criteria. First, it must generate an audible signal and visual alert on the dashboard display, overhead panel or center console when the vehicle is moving at least 6 mph and the system detects an unbelted occupant in one of the front-row seating positions or the unfastening of a second-row belt that was previously buckled.

Along with other specifications, the audible alert must be loud enough to be heard over the background noise in the vehicle cabin. If the seat belt of an occupied front-row seat remains unbuckled, the visual and audible reminders must last at least 90 seconds. If a previously fastened second-row belt is unbuckled, the reminders must last at least 30 seconds. A visual indicator that appears when the driver starts the vehicle is also required for the second row.

Vehicles that meet all the requirements for the front row but miss any or all of the requirements for the second row earn an acceptable rating. Vehicles that miss any or all of the front row requirements but include an audible alert that is eight seconds or longer for both the driver and front seat passenger earn a marginal rating. Vehicles with reminders that are shorter than eight seconds earn a poor rating, whether or not they meet any of the other criteria.

Of the SUVs evaluated, only two Subaru models, the Ascent and Forester, garnered a good rating. Five others, the Hyundai Palisade, Hyundai Tucson, Nissan Murano, Nissan Pathfinder, and Nissan Rogue, earned acceptable ratings.

Another seven scored a marginal rating. These include the Jeep Compass, Jeep Renegade, Jeep Wrangler, Mazda CX-5, Mazda CX-9, Toyota RAV4, and Toyota Highlander. Finally, 12 others received a poor rating. These include 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.

Ultimately, the goal of the new rating program is to push automakers to improve their seat belt reminders in much the same way the IIHS has motivated manufacturers to improve headlights and front crash prevention systems in recent years.

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