Have you ever leaned too far forward in a car seat and had the seat belt lock? Belts lock for a reason—to protect you. But if a belt doesn’t release as expected, it can be both inconvenient and a safety risk. This is what Consumer Reports found in a recent evaluation of the 2016 BMW X1.  

2016 BMW X1

What’s the Concern?

Seat belts in today's vehicles have important locking features that keep adults and children safe in a crash.

The emergency locking retractor function of a seat belt locks when the occupant moves suddenly forward, such as in an emergency braking situation. The locking of the belt restricts the occupant from further forward motion and from being injured by slamming into the hard parts of the car. The emergency locking retractor releases once the belt moves with slower and more gradual motion.

A similar technology is used by parents and caregivers of young children in securing a child car seat in place using the seat belt.

Called an automatic locking retractor (also known as ALR), the feature is activated by pulling the belt (most often the shoulder belt) all the way, which “locks” the retractor from allowing any forward motion. Now the belt can only go one way, retract but not play out. That locked belt then cinches the child seat in place as it’s tightened.

In our standard evaluation of the 2016 BMW X1 for safety features—and its ability to accommodate child passengers—we found that the center rear belt didn’t “unlock” from its automatic locking retractor function as we would expect. Typically, in order to unlock an automatic locking retractor locked belt, you simply need to return the belt to its unbuckled, resting position. But when we did that in the X1, the belt didn’t unlock.

The center rear belt in the BMW X1 stores in the ceiling and the shoulder belt connects to a buckle at the seat cushion for use. Once the belt is “locked,” it may require use of the adjacent seat belt to disconnect the center belt from its buckle and get the belt to “unlock,” a task that may prove difficult to do in a moving car.

It’s not uncommon for a child who has outgrown child seats, or is in a booster seat, or even adults to occasionally lock the belt accidentally by pulling on the shoulder portion of the belt or leaning forward.

Our concern is that the need for the extra steps to release the belt will temporarily leave an occupant unrestrained. Since seat belts are a key safety component, riding unrestrained for even a brief period is a critical safety concern.

Specifically for parents or caregivers of small children or child-passenger safety technicians who more frequently install child seats, the locking function may prove particularly inconvenient. Each time that the center belt is used for a child seat installation and then is needed for another seat or passenger, you’ll need to unlock the belt using these extra steps to release it.

It's important to note that when locked, the belt is just as effective as any other in securing child restraints and is perfectly functional to restrain an occupant in a crash. What gives us concern is the possibility that the belt may not be used because someone can’t figure out how to unlock it. Current standards require the automatic locking retractor function on the belt, but there aren’t specific requirements on how it should unlock.

What Does BMW Say?

We showed BMW our purchased test car and expressed our concerns about the belt. BMW officials indicated that the X1 we tested was not outside of any production specifications, and that it meets the legal requirements of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that govern seat belts and occupant protection. A trip to a BMW dealer to see if the belt could be replaced to operate in the more customary manner yielded a similar response from the dealer service department—indicating the belt was operating just as it should.

Interestingly, in an X1 that BMW representatives drove to our meeting, the second-row center belt behaved differently from ours. Their vehicle’s belt released from its locked position when it was unbuckled and was returned to its resting position—just as we would expect.

While the seat belt doesn't violate any regulations, we believe BMW should ensure all its X1 belts operated in this way, and we've informed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency with oversight over cars, of our findings.

BMW officials declined to give a reason for why our vehicle operated differently from theirs.

What Can You Do?

As a first line of defense, learn how that center belt works in your X1. If you have a belt that operates as ours does, and it locks, you may need the belt buckle from the adjacent seat to release and unlock the automatic locking retractor function. If you have children using that belt, be aware if they are pulling on the belt, or if they tell you they’re “locked.” If so, depending on their age, you may need to pull over to “unlock” the belt so that they can use it.

For passengers of any age, we advise never driving without a seat belt, no matter how short the distance.