Is it safe to use a seatbelt extender?
Seatbelt extenders were designed to accommodate large build and obese adults who otherwise struggle to secure their safety belts in cars and airplanes. Since standard seatbelts don't always provide enough play to accommodate larger folks, the seatbelt extender was designed to add some extra length while securely clipping in between the male and female ends of the standard belt setup. In recent years, these have become the subject of much controversy as they have been advertised to make using child car seats and booster seats easier, and in some cases, they have failed and caused severe injuries and even death. So, let's discuss whether seatbelt extenders are safe to use, or not.
Seatbelts are one of the most important safety items found on modern vehicles, and while modern cars are packed to the brim with active and passive safety features, this is the one you'll rely on to be kept in your seat when the worst happens. But what happens if you can't use a regular seatbelt?
Seatbelt extenders come in various 'sizes', although this applies more to the length by which they can extend the standard setup. They can be either flexible or rigid in construction. Originally, the idea behind seatbelt extenders was to make life easier for adults who could not use standard seatbelts, allowing them to still have the benefits of safety from a seatbelt. These have been used in car and airplane seats safely for many decades.
At some point in the 2010s, car designers started making rear-seat seatbelt buckles flush with the seat - although stylish and less cumbersome for back-seat passengers, it did mean that installing a child car seat safely became challenging. It also meant that older kids in booster seats couldn't reach the buckle to learn to fasten and unfasten their seatbelts themselves. Seatbelt extenders became the solution for securing seats and allowing older kids the independence of buckling themselves in and out.
This wasn't what these extenders were designed for, however, and in a landmark case in the USA in 2013, a young child from Tennessee was involved in a car accident while strapped into his seat in the family Nissan using a seatbelt extender. Despite the fact that the seatbelt extender in question was produced by Ford, the Nissan owner's manual explicitly warns against using such extenders, and the family sued the Blue Oval as the little boy suffered a traumatic brain injury as he was thrown from his seat.
The issue isn't always the extenders, but with how they are used. Despite this, they are readily available in online stores such as Amazon and eBay. But are they really safe?
The question as to whether seatbelt extenders are safe to use lies more in whether they are used correctly than whether the product itself is actually capable of performing the function for which it was designed. When used as they were intended - for larger or obese adults that cannot fit into a seat with a regular seatbelt, these products have met the required safety standards.
For use in car seats and airplane seats on such adults, these seatbelt extenders are perfectly safe if used in the following applications only:
There are various reasons why a seatbelt extender can be dangerous when used incorrectly, and when extenders fail, the passenger is left susceptible to the forces of the accident. In the first place, seatbelt extender compatibility can be an issue. What works in one car may not work in another, despite the fact that it clicks when you buckle it together. If you drive a Honda Accord, obtain one from Honda; if you drive a Toyota Sienna, get one from Toyota. We strongly advise against using a seatbelt extender from a different manufacturer.
Secondly, the extender can change the way the seatbelt mechanism functions due to the placement on your body - the correct fit is across the lap, over the chest, and across the shoulder, with the buckle low down beside you. When poorly fitted, seatbelts and extenders won't provide the correct protection, which means the body can still be pulled free of the seat.
Seatbelt extenders are not safe when used for:
The only potentially viable reasoning for wanting to use a seatbelt extender with a child car seat is in the unlikely event that your car's seatbelt is too short to accommodate the correct installation of your child's seat. We strongly advise against using an extender in any case. Rather try an alternative position in your car, or even better, a more fitting car seat. Read our post on child car seat safety here for more information and contact an expert for guidance if you're unsure.
Seatbelt extenders are perfectly safe when used correctly and matched to the car in use. They should only be used for adults who cannot fit in a regular seatbelt, and never out of convenience or to make buckling-in easier for children. If you absolutely must have a seatbelt extender, make sure you obtain one that is compatible with your specific vehicle. Rather get a manufacturer or brand-specific extender that you know has been tested for your specific car.
While there are numerous generic versions available on the market, experts have stated that these are risky. Just because it clicks into your seatbelt buckle doesn't mean it will be able to withstand the force of gravity in a crash and remains securely locked. If you genuinely need to use an extender, get one from the manufacturer that matches your car. Whether you drive an old-school pickup truck or one of the more fancy electric vehicles, you will be able to source one that suits your car from them directly.
This depends on how much additional leeway you need. As each person's needs are different, summarily opting for the biggest (or longest) extender is not necessarily the answer either. Remember that the position of the buckle should still be alongside you (next to your hip/thigh), and anything that puts the buckle in your lap is much too big, and therefore, not safe.
Barring the fact that airlines may require you to purchase an additional seat, you can request an airplane-specified belt extender which all airplanes carry for passengers that require them.
You should be able to purchase a seatbelt extender from the dealership or manufacturer where you purchase your car. While there are many available options available in online stores, we strongly advise against anything that isn't manufacturer-specified. Check your owner's manual for further guidance, and heed the restrictions and warnings issues there.