It’s 2016! Are You Still Using Locking Clips?

This article originated in the January/February 2016 issue of Safe Ride News.

Locking Clip

Editor’s Intro:

Although it may seem odd now, many in the CPS community were wary of switchable retractors when they first became available in the late 1990s.  After relying on locking clips (pictured left) for so many years, some installations just seemed tighter using them.

I remember being scolded by our certification course instructor during hands-on practice for using a locking clip in a situation that could have been handled using the vehicle’s switchable belt. I explained that I’d tried to use the switchable belt, but the installation was even tighter using the tried-and-true locking-clip approach.  But the instructor was unimpressed with my argument and taught me an important lesson:  When picking between an installation approach that improves tightness only marginally and an approach that is vastly easier for the caregiver to replicate, one should choose the latter because it empowers the caregiver.

Of course, over the years, CPSTs have mostly shed the compulsion to over-rely on locking clips.  However, there is one situation that remains problematic:  the RF-only CR base with a tunnel belt path. Keeping my instructor’s advice in mind, this article takes a look at this issue and provides tips that might finally free us from using locking clips altogether.

To prevent sideways tilting of a CR, consider the CR angle while pressing down on it, and pull the webbing of a belt switched to ALR mode only near the latchplate (not the retractor) to tighten the lap part of the belt.

A common problem when installing a CR using a switchable retractor is that a locked shoulder belt, if too taut, can pull upward on the CR and tilt it to one side.  Although this can happen with other types of CRs, this situation is most common with CR bases because they are relatively lightweight and often have a tunnel belt path (one that both lap and shoulder portions of the belt must run through).

Many such bases have a lock-off that can help prevent this sideways tilting.  Nonetheless, many CPSTs feel that a locking clip is necessary to ensure a proper, non-tilting installation.  The locking clip, placed on the webbing near the latchplate, is used to keep the belt tight.  Since this eliminates the need to switch the belt to automatic locking retractor (ALR) mode, the shoulder belt doesn’t pull upward on one side of the base.  This certainly prevents sideways tilting, but is it the right approach?

Technique is Key

Certain techniques when using a belt with a switchable retractor can lessen the likelihood of sideways tilting.   But first, information should be gathered from the CR manual.  Does it address this situation, or say whether a locking clip must (or must not) be used? (Because many manufacturers feel a locking clip is rarely necessary, some have stopped providing them with their CRs.)

Even if the manufacturer allows use of a locking clip, it’s not a given that one be used on a CR/base to solve the problem of sideways tilting. Caregivers can often be taught how to install without the headaches of using a locking clip. The key factors to teach are how to properly press on the CR/base and how to tighten the belt.. (Note that this advice is specific to seat belts with switchable retractors, not ones made  before 1996 that lack a precrash locking feature or ones with a locking latchplate.)

Pressing Down on the CR/Base

Colella Hand Install
To prevent sideways tilting of a CR, consider the CR angle while pressing down on it, and pull the webbing of a belt switched to ALR mode only near the latchplate (not the retractor) to tighten the lap part of the belt.

First, the caregiver needs to be taught that how one presses down on the CR/base while tightening the belt affects its final installation angle.  And, while recline angle is critical, ensuring the base is level side to side is important, too.

It is common to press too much on the side next to the seat belt buckle, causing the opposite side to lift.  This practice will frequently cause tilting to the side if the belt is in ALR mode.  In fact, uneven pressure can cause tilting even if a lock-off on the CR/base is used, whether the belt is in ALR or ELR mode.

Tightening the Belt

How the belt is tightened is also key to success.  First, it is important to consider the basic tenet that it is the lap part of a seat belt that must be shortened to hold a CR.  When the seat belt is a lap-shoulder belt, it is true that the shoulder belt is also shortened, but remembering to focus attention on taking the slack out of the lap portion is crucial.

Therefore, to tighten the seat belt, grasp the webbing as near to the latchplate as possible and pull; this is the most effective way to shorten the lap portion of the belt. Too often, once the retractor has been switched to ALR mode, the installer starts pulling upward on the shoulder belt to feed webbing into the retractor.  The problem with this approach is that it tightens the belt, but also simultaneously lifts the base (especially if the errors described previously regarding pressing on the base have occurred).  Because the belt is locked, no amount of downward pressure on the base after the fact will correct the problem.

Follow These Steps

  1. Even before tightening, check the starting angle to make sure a tilt is not already present.  Are there contours in the seat cushion? If the CR/base is placed over a feature of the cushion that would make it sink down unevenly when installed, see if shifting the position over an inch or two would help.
  2. Visualize the desired final angle, both recline and side-to-side. Keep that image in mind while applying even downward pressure on the CR/base.
  3. If space allows, work directly in front of the CR/base, pressing it down and toward the seatback.  (An advantage to this technique is that the installer can also use the fronts of his/her legs to press the base toward the seat back.)
  4. Grasp the shoulder belt near the latchplate and pull to shorten the lap belt as much as possible.
  5. Then help the slack move—still within the belt path—toward the retractor. Focus primarily on shortening the lap part of the belt, and avoid pulling upward on the shoulder belt.
  6. As a final step, switch the shoulder belt to ALR mode (but don’t pull upward on the shoulder part of the belt).

Readers will note that a key difference with this technique is that switching the belt to ALR mode is the last step, rather than the first. This timing is important, since it is less likely to result in a shoulder belt that pulls upward on the CR/base.  However, since this also means the belt is tightened while still in ELR mode, in some cases pressing a hand or thumb on the tightened webbing near the latchplate may be necessary to firmly hold the webbing in place and prevent slack from returning to the lap portion of the belt before it is locked in ALR mode.

Joe Colella demonstrates these steps in this YouTube video. In it, he explains that he has found use of a locking clip to be unnecessary since he began using this technique.

Carefully Consider Each Situation

It’s important to remember the wise instructor’s advice to teach caregivers to use techniques that they can do successfully every time they install their CR.  Given the challenge that using a locking clip often presents, it seems logical that the best approach is to teach the proper techniques for installing a CR using the vehicle’s switchable retractor instead.

However, each seat check is a unique situation involving caregivers and their particular CR and vehicle. While it’s likely most people would find it easiest to use the seat belt’s switchable retractor, certain situations might not justify this approach.  For instance, if trying the techniques described here does not correct the problem, it does not make sense to stubbornly avoid a locking clip if using one is a valid solution.  Also, consider how many caregivers will be installing the CR, their individual abilities, and their preferences.

While it is important to practice and teach proper technique rather than jumping immediately to the use of a locking clip, there may still be times when a CPST and caregiver agree that using the locking clip works best for them.  But, by now, using one should be the exception rather than the rule.