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Jeep Wrangler - Restoration & Custom Outfitting
All photos, diagrams, and text on this page Copyright 2013 - David Todeschini - all rights reserved - see Copyright Terms

4-Point Seat Belt Restraint System

 
Graph from SFI showing seat belt strength degradation over time.

Professional racing car drivers are required to have their seat belt harnesses recertified every year, and replaced every 2 years. This is a safety issue, and after a while, ALL seat belts get to the point where they are worn out, the nylon becomes decomposed by hot sun, or otherwise compromised to the point that it is not safe to operate the vehicle. For your safety, you should regularly inspect your seat belts. The SFI Foundation is a non-profit organization established to issue and administer standards for specialty / performance automotive, and racing equipment. Although you and I are not likely to be taking our Jeeps or SUVs to the race track, some of the off-road activities done by Jeepers can be considered "performance driving", and we should have "Safety First" in mind while having all this fun.

HOW A SEAT BELT WITH A RETRACTOR MECHANISM WORKS


How a seat belt works may be a boring topic on its face, but many of you may be surprised at what actually stops you from launching out the windshield head first in a high-speed crash.

 

Seat belts in almost all modern cars are what is known as "3-point restraints"; that is, the seat belt is secured to the frame of the car at three points: 1) The Retractor Mechanism (usually on the floor), 2) A point over and behind your shoulder, and 3) The seat belt buckle (or where it clips to the seat).

 

The seat belt can be pulled out of the retractor, and should automatically tension itself snug against your body when you let it go. Some belts have electric motors that pull the belt around an occupant when he sits on the seat.

 

When you are sitting in the seat, you can grab the belt at your shoulder and pull it slowly out of the retractor and have a few feet of seat belt loose in your hand, as long as you keep on holding it. When you let it go, the retractor (should) pull it snugly against you. This is ability to extend slowly out of the retractor is convenient when you have to lean forward to reach something on the passenger seat. However, if you "crash & burn" while leaning forward with the belt loose, it won't do you a hell of a lot of good.

 

Some shoulder belts cut into an occupant's neck, and some people try to "fool" the retractor by holding the belt loose, or somehow prevent it from fully retracting (or buckle it behind them to avoid the annoying seat belt pinging noise). If you do this, you are putting yourself in danger of not having the protection of a seat belt in a collision which means your head is going to hit the windshield before the belt can "lock up". If the airbags deploy, it would be even worse, because you'll be bounced around like a half-deflated basketball. If you survive, maybe that knock in the noggin knocked some sense into your dumb ass! Most shoulder belts can be adjusted so they don't press on your neck, and if you don't know how to do this, consult your owner's manual in any event, even if you're sitting in your car in an empty parking lot, it is prudent to use your seat belt, as you never know when some Asshole Driving will seem to 'drop out of the sky' on you. Sometimes I'm convinced that Extraterrestrials are beaming them down from outer space around me.

 

An alternative to the standard 3-Point system is the 4-Point system covered below. Seat belt restraint systems on newer vehicles may incorporate things such as pre-tensioners, and some may even be wired to the vehicle's computer. If you have one of  these, it may not be possible or advisable to try to replace it with another style of restraint system.

 

You can replace your seat belt system yourself, in most cases, and replacing it with a 4-Point system is advantageous for safety reasons, but be advised that you will lose some of the 'conveniences' of a retractor system. The following lists some of the advantages (+) and disadvantages () of doing what this article (below) covers:

 

(+) 4-Point systems are MUCH SAFER than standard "lap & shoulder" belts

(+) There is no Retractor mechanism to pull the belt into your neck, or fail to lock during a crash.

(+) 4-Point system will hold you firmly in your seat and in control on rough off-road trails.

(+) 4-Point system will hold you in the seat even if the vehicle flips over on its roof.

(+) 4-Point system more evenly distributes the force of an impact, thereby reducing injuries in a crash.

() 4-Point systems take a bit more time to secure & disengage from.

() You will NOT be able to turn your body to look out the rear window.

() You will NOT be able to lean forward or stretch sideways.

 

 

 

CHECK YOUR SEAT BELTS

 

There are two basic types of systems that locks the spool of a seat belt retractor mechanism when the vehicle is involved in a collision: 1) Activated by car's movement 2) Activated by seat belt's movement. Some retractors use BOTH types of systems.

 

To determine which type you have, sit in the seat and put on the belt. Grab the belt at the shoulder and pull it very sharply downward. If the belt locks up, you have a system that is activated by the belt's movement. If it does NOT lock up, you have a system that is activated by car's movement, or you have a system that is activated by the belt's movement that is defective. Double check by trying this in the opposite seat. If the belt in the other seat behaves differently, have the belts checked by a qualified mechanic; you don't want to take any chances with your safety. See an excellent detailed article on How Stuff Works.

  • If your seat belts have rips, frayed edges, or are bleached by the sun, or are more than 5 years old, they should be replaced.

  • If your seat belts do not snap back into the retract mechanism when you let them go, the locking mechanism that activates the seat belt "stop" mechanism may also be defective.

  • BELT MOVEMENT LOCK SYSTEM: With your seat belt around you, pulling on the belt sharply should STOP the belt from being pulled out of the retractor; if it doesn't, and you can sharply pull the belt more than a few inches without it jamming "stopped", you should replace the retractor mechanism immediately.

  • CAR MOVEMENT LOCK SYSTEM: This system is harder to test because you must put your car in motion (20MPH or faster), then stop it suddenly. You can do this safely in a large empty parking lot, jamming on the brakes hard enough to screech the tires (and activate the Antilock Brake System if your vehicle has one). When decelerating quickly, the seat belt should lock and keep your body from moving forward.

  • If your seat belt does not retract snugly around your body, the belt and retractor mechanism should be replaced.

  • A loose-fitting seat belt is WORSE than no seat belt at all.

  • A seat belt that will not 'lock' in the event of a collision is the same as not having a seat belt.

  • If you have a late model vehicle, your seat belt system may include pre-tensioners and integration with the vehicle's computer (air bag / crash detection system). If this is the case, a DIY job may not be advisable, or even possible. If there is a cable going to your seat belt tensioner, have it looked at by a qualified mechanic before attempting to mess with it.

Retractable, 3-point (shoulder & lap) seat belts such as are used in 99.9% of modern cars wear out rather quickly in a vehicle's life, and a defective restraint system is the last thing you need if you become involved in a serious collision.

 

If you determine that you need to replace your seat belts, and want to upgrade your protection to a 4, 5, or 6-Point restraint system, and there are no "complicated" issues such as pre-tensioners with connection to the crash detection system (computer), you need to  Download Seat Belt Installation Guide (PDF) and understand what you are doing before you proceed.

 

Over 17 years in my Jeep had taken its toll on the retractor mechanism of the driver's side seat belt, which would not fully retract when released. In any event, I needed to replace the seat belts because they were OLD. I tried to repair the tensioner temporarily by removing it from the Roll Bar, loosening the cover that says "DO NOT REMOVE", and holding it against the mechanism while winding the spring (clockwise) a few turns tighter. This had no noticeable effect on its ability to retract the belt. After a few more tries, and a few more turns, I lost my grip on the loosened cover, and what seemed like 20 yards of coiled leaf spring erupted from my hands like a Slinky Spring on PCP.

 

I uttered a few choice expletives, then reasoned that winding the spring "inside-out" and backwards would increase the tension, but that made the belt "lock up" and stay seized when pulled on.

 

As I was looking for a replacement online, I found that "factory" belts and retractors cost upwards of $75 each, and for all that money, I would end up with the same POS I started with, only newer. So I opted for a set of 4-point restraints that do not have retractor mechanisms (less crap to go wrong), and offer a much better safety factor than 3-point lap and shoulder restraints.

 

It took a bit of work, but I like the way it looks and the way the belt holds me firmly in that super-comfortable 3A Racing seat especially when bouncing and sliding around on the sand back-roads of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

PHOTO TO COME

Out of all the Web sites dealing with these 4-point restraints, I couldn't find a single one that had a photo of someone wearing one of these belts so here is a photo of me belted into my new seats with a 4-Point restraint belt.

The two photos of the driver's seat below show the installation of the 4-Point Restraint system with the new Racing Bucket Seats I installed previously. The plastic grommet holes in the seat back are shaped this way for a reason the downward, outward sloping holes cause the vertical belts to fall away from the occupant's neck, and comfortably on the shoulders. The red arrow in the right photo below shows where the belts are attached to the seat frame with an adapter bracket. In case you were wondering, the yellow tab behind the buckle serves two purposes: It keeps loose-fitting clothing from being caught in the buckle, and it keeps the buckle and metal loop where the belt attaches from digging into you.

The left side of the driver's lap belt is secured to the Roll Bar mount where the factory seat belt retractor attached. The forged, one-piece eye bolts supplied with the 4-Point Restraint belt system are 7/16" x 20 threads per inch. The captive nut in the roll bar "floats" in a welded-in mount, so if you want to avoid rattling noises, a few thick rubber washers and a flat washer between the Roll Bar and the eye bolt are recommended.

In order to secure the new 4-Point seat belt to the seat frame (driver's right side, passenger's left side), you must remove the original seat belt buckle where it attaches to the seat frame. You must also bypass any seat belt interlock switches, because the 4-Point system does not provide an interlock system.

You must fabricate an Adapter Bracket as shown, to attach the seat belt with the provided eye bolt. 

Here you see a side view of the bracket with the hardware installed. The bracket uses the original bolt (red arrow) to secure it to the place on the seat frame where the original seat belt buckle strap was attached.

This is the top view of the bracket. Note that the corners of the bracket which face the edge of the seat are cut off, and the hard edges rounded. This prevents scraping your hand if you reach down between the seat and the floor to retrieve something you dropped.

This is the bottom view of the bracket.

This photo shows the right side of the driver's seat with the right shoulder belt (green arrow) hanging straight down, and the Seat Belt Buckle Bracket (red arrow) installed where the original buckle strap was. After the original screw is started in the hole, the bracket is rotated into position (yellow arrow), and the mounting screw tightened. Note that it is important that the belt NOT be bunched up in the attachment clip in its final position.

This photo shows the Buckle Side Bracket (orange arrow) rotated into position, and the original bolt (red arrow) holding it to the seat frame. The green arrow shows where the Rear Seat Adapter Bracket attaches to the seat (see Racing Bucket Seats)

The two shoulder belts are attached to the floor behind the seat. You can do this by drilling a hole in the floorboard, or you can (if you have a Jeep Wrangler) replace the Torx bolt with the eye bolt supplied with the seat belt kit. Note that in this photo, BOTH shoulder belts are attached to the eye bolt (red and yellow arrows).

As a safety precaution, I always carry a Paramedic's Speed-assist opening pocket knife clipped to my belt. The seat belt cutter and glass breaker would be used in the rescue of a crash victim, or to get a child or a dog  left by the owner out of a locked car.

4-Point Restraint Systems

 
 
 
 

Other items you may be interested in. The two knives shown have seat belt cutters and glass breaking points.

Compare the price of the 4 and 5 Point restraints (above) with 'replacement' seat belts for Jeep Wrangler (left).

 

 A good car seat for a small child is an absolute MUST

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