INDIANAPOLIS – Highway safety experts are calling for changes to the way American vehicles warn drivers who forget to buckle their seat belts.

“Seatbelts remain the most important piece of safety equipment that you have in a vehicle,” said David Harkey, President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Most of us are familiar with the persistent, sometimes annoying chime that goes off when we start driving without a seat belt fastened.  The repetitive “beep beep beep” is intended to prompt you or a passenger in your car to buckle up.  However, Harkey and fellow researchers at the IIHS argue that too many American vehicles have seat belt alerts that are too easy to ignore, either because they’re too short or too quiet.

“When you look at our fatality numbers, almost half of the front seat occupants that are killed in crashes are not buckled,” Harkey said.

Federal standards require that seat belt alerts must have an audible “chime” to remind drivers and passengers to fasten their seat belt once a car is in motion.  While a visible alert must last 60 seconds, audible alerts are only required to last between 4 and 8 seconds. And that’s too easy to ignore, according to Harkey.

“What we’re striving for is to get to where that chime that you’re hearing is at least 90 seconds long,” Harkey said.  “We think that that persistent, maybe sometimes annoying sound will get drivers to buckle their seatbelts more frequently.”

Harkey said an effect seat belt warning system should also include sensors to alert a driver about changes in the back seat during a drive.

“So if you had a child, for example, in the rear of the vehicle,” Harkey said.  “They unbuckle their belt, you get a warning as a driver.”

The IIHS recently tested 26 midsized SUV models against their higher standards.  The results were not impressive.

“Only two received a good rating in our new seatbelt rating criteria,” Harkey said.  “And almost half of the vehicles we tested received a poor rating.”

All the SUVs tested were from model years 2021 and 2022.  The only two SUV models to receive a “Good” rating were the Subaru Ascent and Forester.  Five models from Nissan and Hyundai received “Acceptable” ratings.  Those were the Hyundai Palisade and Tucson, along with Nissan’s Murano, Pathfinder and Rogue.

The remaining 19 models were rated either “Marginal” or “Poor” in the test.

“Sometimes it was became the chime wasn’t long enough,” Harkey said.  “Sometimes it’s because it wasn’t loud enough.”

Vehicles receiving a “Marginal” rating included the Jeep Compass, Renegade and Wrangler (hard top), Mazda’s CX-5 and CX-9, as well as the Toyota Highlander and RAV4.

SUVs that received a “Poor” rating in the test were the Audi Q3, Buick Encore, Chevrolet Equinox and Traverse, the Ford Escape and Explorer, Honda CR-V, HR-V and Pilot, Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross, the Volkswagen Atlas and Volvo XC40.

IIHS research showed that a more persistent, noticeable seat belt alert chime could convince up to 34-percent of those who don’t routinely buckle up to change their habits.

“Our estimate is that we can save about 1500 more lives each year,” Harkey said.

The IIHS is conducting the tests as a way to pressure automakers to start making changes to adopt the higher standards for acceptable seat belt warning systems.

“The good news is, for the auto makers, the front seat change of just extending this chime is often just a software change,” Harkey said.  “We hope that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will at some point step in and regulate this and require this.” 

Harkey said initial testing was conducted on midsized SUVs because of the popularity of such models across the U.S.  The IIHS plans more testing on other vehicle classes like sedans and trucks in the coming months.

You can read more about the testing being concluded by the IIHS on their website.