Friday, May 25, 2012

Seatbelt Strangulation

December 13th, 2011 - A day I will never forget.

"Mama, help!"

The cry came from the third row of our minivan, so faint that we almost didn't hear it amidst "Pirates of the Caribbean," the movie playing on our van's dvd player.  I had just picked Christina (our 15-year old) up from math tutoring, and she asked if we could please swing by the bank to deposit a check from babysitting.  Christmas was less than two weeks away, and she needed the money for gifts.

"Sure," I said.  It was a quick stop before heading home, no problem.  Just a normal day.

We were on line at the bank drive-thru, when we heard our 4-year old, Stephen, gasp for help.  To my horror, when I looked in the rear-view mirror, I saw that his head was a sickening shade of purple, his eyes were bulging, and that he had - not one - but TWO seat belts wrapped around his neck.  

"Oh my God," I prayed. 

Christina jumped out of her seat into the 2nd row like a flash, and I immediately opened the back hatch and got behind his seat.  Within seconds, both of us were trying to loosen the noose around his neck, but to no avail.  Stephen (in his booster seat), who had lately begun to enjoy wrapping things around his neck (like bathrobe belts, pieces of yarn, the ties to a superhero cape) had systematically wrapped both his own lap belt and the middle belt of the empty seat (which he had buckled on his own, just for fun) around his neck.  He did so alternately...first his own belt, then the middle belt, and so on, until he had each one wrapped in figure-8 style three times.  This was a monster choking him.

The first thing we tried to do was unbuckle the belts, but they wouldn't release.  The next thing we tried to do was shimmy our fingers between the fabric and his neck, hoping to loosen the belts.  No slack whatsoever.  We tried manipulating his head to unwind him from each belt, one at a time, but that made the situation even worse, for as we pulled in one direction, the opposing belt tightened even further.  All this happened in matter of seconds, but it honestly felt like minutes.  He could not breathe.  I knew we were running out of time.

Christina screamed, "Mom!  We need scissors!"  And I knew she was right.  All I had in our car was a tiny pair of cuticle scissors in my make-up bag.  Pathetic.

I ran to the bank teller window and pounded on the glass with my fists, just as loud as my heart was pounding.  I began to scream and make hand-motions that we needed scissors and to call 911, it was an emergency.

This sweet teller, who normally asks me how many lollipops I would like, caught glimpse of Stephen's tangled head, now slumped over in our back seat.  She froze behind the thick glass.  I saw horror in her face.

By this time, other people had taken notice of our dire situation.  A kind man jumped out of his car and offered a pair of box cutters.  I ran towards him, but at that moment, a true miracle happened.

Christina, who had continued to work on the belts, suddenly screamed that Stephen was free.  She pulled his limp body from the back, and folded him into her arms.  In an instant, I was cradling Stephen like an infant, slapping his face and screaming his name, praying to God that he would revive.   And in a matter of seconds, he came back to us.

I don't believe in luck.

To this day, I know in my heart that God sent His angels to loosen those seat belts, for there was no other way they could have ever released.  I believe the Lord's fingers untangled him.

We were all shaking and crying.  Stephen was left with broken blood vessels in his face and some bruising around his neck, but - thanks be to God - he was alright.  

This was experience was terrifying, the closest we had ever come to losing one of our children.  I can honestly say that I had taken for granted that we were all relatively safe, running errands in our car.  The scary thing is that if Stephen had passed out before we realized he was suffocating, we just would have found him dead in the back row.  I still have nightmares about this.

So, what have I learned?  What are we now doing differently?  

Well, for one thing, we enforce the rule that the Littles (Stephen, now 5, and Sophie, 2-1/2) must always have an older sibling next to them in the car.  No exceptions.

And I now keep a seat belt cutter in my glove compartment.  A dear friend actually sent us this one as a gift, and I pray that I will never need to use it, but now...I am prepared.

I also make sure our seat belts are in their locked mode. 

I share this story with you, in hopes that public awareness of this very real danger will increase, and that other children might be saved.

I am posting some helpful information below, for more information about preventing seatbelt strangulation:

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. 
Why can't you simply unwrap the belt, you might be thinking?  By pulling the shoulder belt out to the very end, the children have inadvertently switched the shoulder belt into a locking mode - one where the shoulder 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.
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.  
Make sure any shoulder belts within your child's reach are switched to their locking mode. 
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: 
    • Make sure that any shoulder belts nearby to the child are switched to their locked mode.
    • Buckle any nearby shoulder-lap belts.  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)
    • After the child is buckled, slowly pull the shoulder belt out all the way to lock the retractor.  This will prevent the child from being able to wrap the belt around their neck.  Don't forget to snug the belt up after pulling it all the way out. 
  • 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:
      • 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.
    • Always check the owner's manual to your vehicle & child car seat as they may have specific instructions.  

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