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Minivans Only as Safe as Their Seatbelt Reminders, IIHS Says

  • Minivans are particularly safe vehicles from a crashworthiness standpoint, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says more can be done to keep children safe.
  • Specifically, the IIHS says seatbelt reminders should be more robust, with louder audible signals and indefinite visual reminders projected to account for a 34% increase in belt use.
  • Toyota’s Sienna earns top marks from the IIHS for its best-in-class second and third-row belt reminders, in addition to its lengthy and loud reminders.

    As much as we love muscle cars and super bikes here at Autoweek, we know sometimes a minivan is the right tool for the job. Millions of families across the nation rely on these 8-seat bricks to transport themselves in comfort day in and day out. There’s no replacement for trunk space and, believe it or not, most of these minivans can get up and go thanks to their size-appropriate, large-displacement engines.

    Just as important as seating capacity and trunk space, however, is safety, especially when children are involved. And minivans have typically been known as an especially safe choice, due to the large size and ample distance between occupants and impacts.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety agrees with this assessment, noting four of the most popular minivans currently receive the highest possible crashworthiness marks. But the IIHS says one key safety factor is often overlooked in family-designed minivans—seatbelt reminders.

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    Seatbelt reminders have been a federally regulated safety item required on road-going vehicles since 1972, but the IIHS says the current reminders aren’t always effective. In fact, in 2020, more than a third of 4-12-year-old children killed in crashes were unrestrained.

    Current standards stipulate that seatbelt reminders must include an audible signal that lasts for 4-8 seconds total and a visual alert lasting at least 60 seconds when the belt is unbuckled at ignition. However, research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that longer duration or even indefinite reminders can increase belt use by more than 30% when compared to intermittent systems.

    Last year, the IIHS implemented a seatbelt reminder evaluation that goes above and beyond the federal standard. Specifically, the IIHS test stipulates that the 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, in addition to the unfastening of a second-row belt and a loud audible alert for 90 seconds in the front and 30 seconds in the rear.

    The results showed that many manufacturers stick to short-duration and low-level sound requirements, making the system work just well enough to pass federal standards. And when it comes to minivans, only one received good IIHS marks for the 2023 model year.

    The Toyota Sienna excels in the new IIHS seatbelt reminder evaluation.

    Toyota’s Sienna stands out in its class, which includes the Kia Carnival, Honda Odyssey, and Chrysler Pacifica, as the manufacturer to really go above and beyond federal standards. Specifically, the Sienna is the only minivan with reminders for the second and third rows.

    This is important because drivers struggle to see back to the third row, especially if small children are back there. It’s important to note that the second and third-row seatbelt reminders aren’t federally mandated, and the third-row reminder doesn’t actually factor into IIHS scoring.

    The Kia Carnival receives the next best score, earning an acceptable rating for a well-thought-out front-row reminder system but a lack of second-row reminders. Chrysler’s Pacifica earns a marginal rating due to a nearly inaudible reminder tone and for failing to start chiming within the required two seconds after the vehicle reaches 25 mph. Finally, the Honda Odyssey receives a poor rating as a result of its audible front belt reminders only lasting eight seconds, with no second or third-row reminder.

    Kia Carnival.

    “Effective seatbelt reminders are especially important for minivans, since the owners of these vehicles often buy them specifically because they have young children,” said IIHS Senior Research Scientist David Kidd, who led development of the seatbelt reminder rating program. “While some of its competitors are falling short, Toyota deserves credit for going above and beyond.”

    Despite the slightly disappointing results from the current crop of minivans, it’s important to remember all of these models receive top marks on crashworthiness from the IIHS and pass current federal standards. Additionally, the institute notes rear passenger belt reminders are becoming more common, with about half of the program’s 82 vehicles evaluated last year being equipped with them.

    This adoption trend falls in line with a survey showing 80% of drivers who transport children favor the addition of rear belt reminders. The bottom line is, as long as children get strapped into a minivan properly, they should be well protected.

    Have you ever had an accident in a minivan? If so, how did the seatbelts perform? Please comment below.

    Associate Editor
    A New York transplant hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Emmet White has a passion for anything that goes: cars, bicycles, planes, and motorcycles.

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