By on March 31, 2022

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has spent the last few years branching out from crash tests to focus on some of the safety tech in modern vehicles. However, this arguably peaked when the group realized that modern vehicles with higher ride heights were blinding everyone with their headlights and decided that might be something worth including in general safety testing. The IIHS has since preoccupied itself with advocating for additional electronic nannies and mimicking government regulators by suggesting vehicles should annoy drivers as often as possible.

This week, that manifested by way of the IIHS upgrading its safety program to include pressuring manufacturers into making seat belt reminders more irritating. While the federal standards specify that undone belts must include an audible signal that lasts between four and eight seconds, in conjunction with a minute-long warning light, the non-profit (supported by insurance companies) believes reminders should be longer and louder than outlined by existing requirements.

“By now everybody knows that seat belts save lives when they are used,” says IIHS President David Harkey. “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. These new ratings are designed to push manufacturers to realize that potential.”

“Most Americans use their seat belts, especially in the front seat. But the small number who don’t translates into a lot of fatalities,” he continued. “Almost half of the drivers and front seat passengers killed in crashes in 2019 weren’t belted.”

That’s a shame. But, as Harkey stated, everybody knows that seat belts save lives when they are used. Nationally mandated in 1968, the widespread implementation of seat belts is frequently attributed to a decline in roadway fatalities between 1970 and 1975. But per capita deaths actually pitched up again until the 1980s, followed by several decades of gradual declines. Americans living today currently experience less than half the car-based fatalities (based on population) they would have in the late 1960s.

While seat belts undoubtedly played an important factor, so did things like crumple zones, airbags, modern tires, and the nation collectively deciding to de-normalize drunk driving. Though it’s worth noting that the push to discourage inebriation started in the early 1900s and took decades to reach that kind of impact, mimicking the long slow journey of widespread belt use before real improvements manifested.

The IIHS is taking a less nuanced approach, confident that upping the ante on warning chimes will be sufficient in preventing 1,500 fewer deaths per year by convincing 34 percent of individuals who don’t buckle up to finally do so. This is based on an earlier study conducted by the group, in conjunction with the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), that attempted to determine whether bringing back interlocking devices would be superior to seat-belt reminders.

“We expected the interlocks to be more effective than any type of belt reminder, but that didn’t turn out to be the case,” HLDI Senior Research Scientist David Kidd explained. “Many people simply forget to buckle up, so a persistent reminder works well for them. For those who are really averse to using the seat belt, an interlock doesn’t always help because they can find a way to get around it, for example by buckling the belt behind their back or sitting on top of it.”

These are ill-advised strategies. But we’ve probably all seen someone do it to circumvent having to wear a safety belt. Despite the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suggesting that automakers could install immobilizers based on harness use in 2021, the IIHS-HLDI feels louder/longer chimes would be a better solution. Though your author would be surprised to see either solution make a meaningful difference in crash data considering the United States seat-belt compliance rate is already at an all-time high.

Most automakers also go well beyond the federal minimum in terms of how pervasive their warning chimes have to be. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety still doesn’t believe they’re going far enough and compared several models to showcase the differences, before rolling it into its revised testing standards.

From the IIHS:

To encourage manufacturers to adopt more effective and consistent standards, the new IIHS protocol rates seat belt reminders as good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based primarily on the volume, duration and timing of the audible alert.

To earn a good rating, a seat belt reminder system 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.

“The gold standard is an alert that’s impossible to ignore,” stated IIHS Senior Test Coordinator Sean O’Malley.

“Most of these problems don’t require new hardware,” he continued. “Even among the vehicles that earn poor ratings, it’s possible that simply lengthening the duration of the audible alert could do the trick.”

While your author is all for improved automotive safety, this doesn’t seem like the best use of the IIHS’ time. There’s been a growing trend among regulators and trade organizations of late to adopt electronic nannies designed to condition drivers like Pavlov’s dogs. However, this appears to be coming at the expense of encouraging meaningful improvements to the functionality of advanced driving aids, vehicle construction, or removing all the distracting equipment that keeps a motorist’s eyes off the road ahead.

If you want to see how the handful of smallish vehicles the IIHS initially tested compared, you’ll have to check out its website. Though the obvious takeaway is that scoring came down to how obnoxious individual manufacturers opted to make their warning sounds (giving Subaru top honors). Longer and louder always yielded a better grade, with the inclusion of warnings for the second row (handy if you have a few kids) being required for the best ratings. If that’s important to you, then there’s now a resource to use. But some of us are having trouble envisioning how this is will actually change the minds of people who have been successfully ignoring seatbelt reminders for years and wonder if it’s not a distraction from some of the more-important issues taking place within the industry today.

[Image: Pamela Au/Shutterstock]

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42 Comments on “Annoy the Driver: IIHS Says Seatbelt Chimes Aren’t Loud Enough...”


  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I do not want or need louder seatbelt chimes. I wear mine automatically. Every time my 100 lb dog jumps on the front seat she sets off the chimes. I’m at the point where I deliberately leave the passenger front seatbelt buckled up.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I automatically put mine on, but my wife frequently forgets to put hers on while riding as a passenger, and gets annoyed when I remind her. So we get to listen to Toyota’s frantic “Do it NOW!” stepped-up tone.

      Sometimes I’ll refuse to pull out of the alley onto the street before she buckles up, which annoys her even more. But then I’m always paranoid I’ll meet a cop who will pull us over to write a seatbelt ticket.

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      I wonder what would happen to your dog in the event of a crash. I what damage an unrestrained, 100lb projectile would do, after being blasted by an airbag, to anyone else in the vehicle.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    While I know it’s not what you meant, “preventing 1500 fewer deaths” makes it sound like we’re gunning for more fatalities.

    On to the topic of the post, the people dead set against wearing their seatbelts will come up with ways to circumvent louder klaxons. Off the top of my head I can think of a permanently buckled seatbelt that one just sits on, or one of those seatbelt extenders buckled into the hasp.

    The sensors seem fairly stupid and incapable of seeing past those tricks, unless there’s a new generation that can figure out a minimum length of belt that must be pulled to adequately secure a passenger.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      I’m surprised they haven’t floated the idea of returning to 1974, and the infamous seatbelt / ignition interlock system edict, which lasted only about halfway through the 1975 model year before being rescinded.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    ““The gold standard is an alert that’s impossible to ignore,” stated IIHS Senior Test Coordinator Sean O’Malley.”

    Hey, **** you Sean. I am dead in 1997 without a seat belt so surprise surprise I always wear them but let dumb sh!ts play the game and Darwin will handle the prizes.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      The quote “impossible to ignore” suggest that Mr. O’Malley is advocating for a louder and more distracting alert chime. It strikes me that an unbuckled seatbelt remains merely a danger unless a crash occurs. Only if a crash occurs will harm take place. That suggests to me that a driver with an unbelted occupant should focus MORE on the road, rather than less. So a louder, more distracting alert might actually cause the harm it seeks to prevent.

      That being said, people should wear their seatbelts. So there should be some kind of balance between a distracting chime and a chime that it’s possible to miss.

    • 0 avatar
      Yankee

      @28:

      That’s the first thought I had when I saw the headline. I too would have likely died or at least experienced life-changing injuries in a crash when I was young had it not been for a seatbelt. For all those who ignore the laws of physics, just make sure they have an organ donor endorsement on their license. Here in PA, they rescinded the helmet law a few years ago and natural selection has been keeping the supply of donor organs flowing.

  • avatar
    ScarecrowRepair

    A friend recently bought a Dodge Ram pickup, and discovered he can’t back up with the door open; opening a door throws the truck into Park. Don’t know the details, but he was mighty pissed.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Is that the rotary controller?

      On Honda’s ever-derided pushbutton system, if I hold the R button down (or keep the seatbelt buckled), I can back up with the door open.

  • avatar
    Illan

    as a owner of a 2019 current gen toyota rav4. the seat belt reminder is already loud and annoying enough.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      True. The ones used in Toyota ding for a little bit, then stop, come back on the regular pace, then step up to double-time, until you put the belt on.

  • avatar
    MitchConner

    What a bunch of clowns. Notice how they’re always taking manufacturers to task for every stupid little thing yet never push for tougher driver training and evaluation standards, laws that crank up the penalties for distracted driving, or advanced driver training classes that lower insurance rates once a certificate is earned?

    I fart in their general direction.

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      “ Notice how they’re always taking manufacturers to task for every stupid little thing yet never push for tougher driver training and evaluation standards, laws that crank up the penalties for distracted driving, or advanced driver training classes that lower insurance rates once a certificate is earned?”

      Can you blame them? They’re following the lead of the federal government. Why teach people how to back up properly when you can just install a camera? Why teach proper snow driving technique when you can just install traction control?

      • 0 avatar
        Matt Posky

        I’m typically skeptical of sweeping government regulations. However I would endorse slightly tougher driver training and some new rules that discouraged manufacturers from effectively putting a TV into the center console.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    Perhaps a bit off topic here, but The IIHS is a curious organization. It is NGO non profit funded by insurance companies. With its crash testing parameters and lobbying, it is a quazi governmantal source of regulation. Car manufacturers strive to please the IIHS. They want that top safety rating. I think that it might be something my Fox News disciple, government hating friend might endorse. It is an industry regulator that is not (using my freind’s sneering disgusted contemptuous tone of voice) “Government”.
    I can’t find any historical reference on Google, but I recall that the IIHS was a strong propnent of the (IMHO ridiculous) 55mph National Maximum Speed Limit.
    That said I do agree with some of their goals and policies.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      Seems totally on topic and highly relevant.

    • 0 avatar
      tankinbeans

      I’d always heard the 55 mph limit was an effort to reduce fuel consumption. Granted I wasn’t around when it was enacted but I believe my Buick, a 91 LeSabre had the red 55.

      Now I’m probably going off-topic.

    • 0 avatar

      IIHS is useful for crash standards and headlight complaints. They push NHTSA where they need pushing. IIHS is useless for Red Light Cams, speed limit enforcement and any DWI related issues. IIHS gets on TV with the crash porn videos they release to TV stations every year which gets them in the door for the propaganda.

      IIHS was the biggest supporter of the 55 NMSL because their companies made a bloody fortune from “speed surcharges” on insurance policies.

      I trust NCAP for my euro cars….and IIHS only for the crash tests. Beyond that, IIHS is NOT the driver’s friend.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    C. S. Lewis: Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Two things, since no one asked:

    I) Having worked for one automaker for 12 years and for another automaker for 16 years, anyone who knows anything about car crashes *will* buckle up – every time. But most members of the general public don’t know much about car crashes. So a little education (or a deeper dive) might be helpful. In other words, treat people as if they were intelligent [even if they aren’t] and give them a chance to buy in, rather than beating them over the head (and potentially motivating the resisters to double down).

    II) Some modern 3-point seat belt systems kind of suck and are relatively difficult to wear properly. If you don’t wear the seat belt properly, it can’t work optimally. Very few people know what’s what about the right way to wear a seat belt. Again, give people a chance to make an educated choice for their own self-interest.

    • 0 avatar
      EBFlex

      “ give people a chance to make an educated choice for their own self-interest.”

      People are not allowed to make decisions that are best for themselves. Blind, forced compliance is the only acceptable response.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    I have to buckle up in my 2010 F-150 upon startup. Once I’m moving, though, I can unbuckle the seatbelt with no chime. I think that the light illuminates on the dash but I can’t remember if it does or not.

    I tried it once for reasons unremembered. I always roll belted.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      No BeltMinder in there? I thought Ford put that system (fast-paced belt dinger and flashing light that takes a series of convoluted steps to disable) on everything beginning around 2008-ish. Maybe yours had been disabled.

  • avatar

    I’d suggest that smoke detector grade shrill alarm will solve this problem. Where can I patent this?

  • avatar
    brn

    If the IIHS didn’t jump the shark before, they have now.

    • 0 avatar

      You forget their support of the 85 mph speedometer and their saving LTI Industries when the Laser Gun wasn’t finding LEO customers…they bought lasers and GAVE them to police agencies….sorry, that last one was GEICO

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I always thought a power reduction or a 25mph top speed was a viable option to the unbuckled driver. That’s more than enough for a valet or garage attendant or repair shop tech to move the cars around and take care of them. And since, and this was at the time I was starting to drive many moons ago so this might have changed, high schoolers showing off and/or driving like a maniac are less likely to be buckled in, the power and speed reduction would be a good incentive to buckle up. And with all of the sensors and electronics in each car, the above plus some kind of seat belt length needs to be unspooled to prevent behind the seat buckling or sit on the seat belt driving can be implemented as well.

    • 0 avatar
      jack4x

      This is actually how my Polaris UTV works, I believe 15 mph is the max when unbelted.

    • 0 avatar
      wolfwagen

      In addition to the speed limiting I would add that unless a seat belt is worn none of of HVAC, entertainment, and phone functions work. Add in the SBLS (Seat Belt Limit Switch) and that would surely make people buckle up.

      No one is driving 25 MPH in hot climate with no AC, no phone and no tunes, just as no one is driving 25 mph in a cold climate with no heat (seat and dash), no phone and no tunes.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    Somewhere in my memory is our family’s ’73 Dodge Dart (with optional shoulder belts!) that had a seat belt buzzer that never stopped unless it was buckled up. Could always do that, I suppose?
    People that don’t want to wear their seatbelts are going to find a way around it. So really no much point in trying to address them.

  • avatar
    random1

    In my Polestar, the seat belt nag is surprisingly short and unobtrusive. A soft beep, a pop-up message, click ok and move on. Given the Volvo underpinnings and obsession with safety (or image thereof), that’s really weird.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Posky

      The IIHS actually placed Volvo at the bottom of its list because the chime wasn’t obnoxious enough. Though the manufacturer previously had been awarded a large number of top safety picks from the outlet.

  • avatar

    In 1974, I purchased a new Datsun (later Nissan) 260Z. It had an interlock that would not let you start the car until your seatbelt was worn. There was a sensor in the seat that could be unplugged, disabling the interlock. I finally disabled mine. I believe 1974 models were the only ones with this type of interlock.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      IIRC, I read that there was supposedly a daughter of a US Senator or other high-ranking official who was assaulted in a parking garage after she couldn’t get away because she couldn’t get the car started due to the interlock malfunctioning, which led to the repeal of the legislation.

  • avatar
    AK

    The belt chime in my 22 BRZ is INCREDIBLY loud and it never stops, even if the car is “parked” (stopped with the e-brake applied). I’ve never heard such an aggressive chime.

    Thankfully, Subaru lets you disable it all together by putting the car in accessory mode and buckling/unbuckling the driver’s belt 20 times in 30 seconds. Very handy.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    TTAC Survey Question: If you buckle up, when exactly (in the process of getting underway) do you buckle your seatbelt?

    [When my sister and I were teenagers and learning about driving, we pointed out that my dad didn’t immediately buckle up when starting the vehicle. My mom immediately pointed out that he always had his seatbelt on by the time he was out on the road. (In the early days of their marriage, he actually installed aftermarket seat belts on vehicles that didn’t come factory equipped.)]

    When I was learning to drive, my intent was to lock-in the muscle memory so that I automatically fastened my seatbelt as part of the process of starting the vehicle, checking mirrors, etc. Sitting here at this moment I honestly don’t know when in that process I fasten the belt, but I will now go outside and do a trial run so that I may answer this incredibly pertinent survey. LOL.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      – While approaching the vehicle with keys in hand, do a scan of all four tires (are they inflated, have the wheels been stolen)
      – Also scan the area around the vehicle, including extra scan in intended direction of travel
      – Unlock the door and get in, check mirror positioning while inserting key
      • Right hand starts the vehicle (ears listen for any engine weirdness)
      • Right hand reaches from ignition key over left shoulder and fastens seatbelt
      • Right hand from the seat belt to the gear selector (eyes scan gauges)
      – With my vehicles I also pay attention as the transmission goes into gear

      So yeah, it’s pretty much locked in. (Good job, teenage me. Now if only I had taught myself to get to the office on time and how to agree with the boss.)

      • 0 avatar
        tankinbeans

        I typically get in the car, hit the button and then put my belt on. I figure the few seconds that I take to pull the belt and buckle it gives the engine a head start on idling down a bit. Lately I’ve had my first world problem where the car doesn’t recognize my fob and I’m fully belted before I hit the button again.

        Either way again, my belt is on before I move, to the point where my passengers hate me. I won’t move until they’re all belted. Instead I’ll just stare at them.

        It helps that the warning is annoying enough that I don’t want to hear it.

        The one exception to the above is when I stop by the mailbox before going home. Since it’s under a quarter mile from the mailbox station to my driveway, I don’t bother buckling back up. Drives me nuts when my mom takes hers off at the mailbox because I get to listen to the harmonizing beeps.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Get in, sit down, put belt on, push start button.

      My wife is haphazard about it, often putting the belt on only after the chime steps up, and it drives me crazy.

  • avatar
    ravenuer

    “Most Americans use their seat belts, especially in the front seat. But the small number who don’t translates into a lot of fatalities,” he continued. “Almost half of the drivers and front seat passengers killed in crashes in 2019 weren’t belted.”

    Darwin. He seems to take care of those problems.

  • avatar
    heycarp

    just verify that seatbelt was unlatched during crash & permit ins. cos. to deny coverage. Rates would go down 50%

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