Seat belts are more than a strap that goes across your torso. They are what keep you safe on journeys. Many countries have made it mandatory to wear seat belts at all times when inside a vehicle. Naturally, with age, seat belts tend to lose their effectiveness. For them to work properly, the strap has to retract from the hook and lay snug against your body. Here’s some reason why your car’s seat belt won’t retract.
If the seat belt won’t retract or is loose, it cannot restrain your body from shooting forward in case there is a collision. Even though you put all your force into it, the seat belt doesn’t seem to budge. Newer seat belts quickly retract and lay nicely across the body.
On the other hand, older seat belts lag a little when retracting. After a certain point, they stop retracting entirely. Occasionally, this will also cause the belt to become loose.
Different Parts Of A Seat Belt
Although a seat belt will give off the illusion that it is somewhat simple in design, these complicated units are made up of several small, intricate components. All the elements work together in harmony to keep the occupants of the vehicle safe. Five notable individual components are found in a car’s restraint system:
The buckle of the seat belt works as the receptacle. The latch plate of the restraint is secured in there. When you fasten your seat belt, the latch plate attaches onto the system’s buckle, locked safely in place until you manually release it.
The latch plate that was just mentioned is capable of gliding up and down on the webbing of the restraint. It locks in place once pushed inside its corresponding buckle. When the buckle release of the unit is depressed, the latch plate is ejected from the buckle.
Motorists often refer to a seat belt’s webbing as the “belt,” as it twists around the vehicle’s occupant. The webbing is tasked with being a restraining device if there was ever a collision. Made of polyester fibers, seat belt webbing is designed to tolerate intense shock loads.
The pillar loop of the seat belt is attached to the zone over the rider’s shoulder and lets the webbing of a seat belt be retracted or pulled out for proper comfort and fitment. Pillar loops tend to differ between one vehicle to another and are generally manufacturer specific.
The retractor performs the inward and outward disbursement of webbing below regular operating conditions. In addition, it is also responsible for securing the webbing of the seat belt in a set position when it is pulled outward abruptly, such as in the event of a collision. Usually, a retractor locks a seat belt in place post-accident too.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract
You are probably wondering why the seat belt won’t retract even though there seems to be no apparent reason behind it. In reality, there is much more to it than meets the eye. By its very nature, the seat belt locks automatically in special situations thanks to the retractor.
The internal mechanism of this component allows the seat belt to retract and extend freely unless it detects a sudden rapid movement or change in vehicle speed. However, there are other answers to why a seat belt won’t retract.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Bad Seat Belt Retractor
The seat belt retractor might be broken and in need of replacement. This is the part where the belt rolls in – it is what retracts the seat belt. The only way you can fix a defective broken seat belt retractor is by replacing the unit (retractor) and seat belt with a new set.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Twisted Seat Belt
The plastic trim may have to be removed to check and ensure that the seat belt has not twisted. If this happens, unnecessary resistance is added and it makes it more difficult for the retractor to take in the seat belt all the way. A seat belt can twist past the plastic trim/panel, and it will not be visible unless you remove the plastic cover. This trim shields the pillar within the rear and front door called the B-pillar.
To take the panel out, you must first remove the weatherstrip. After that, extract the B-pillar panel. Clips are what generally hold the panel in place. Some Toyota and Honda models have screws in place of clips so if you cannot find the clips, loosen the screws. If the belt has been twisted, re-twist the belt to its true position. Attach the trim again and check to see if the problem has been fixed.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Previous Accident
Once the car gets into an accident, it blows up the pretensioner, locking the seat belt. To solve this, change the seat belt pretensioners. A cheaper alternative is getting a seat belt repair service.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Dirt And Grime On Webbing
Due to the age of the vehicle, the seat belt might get stiff. If dirt and grime accumulate on the components, it gets harder to retract the seat belt. When there is excessive dirt on the belt webbing, it slows down the extraction and retraction of the seat belt due to excessive friction generated on the mechanism than normal. The result: retractor locks quicker, making it hard to put the seat belt on occasionally.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Bad Retractor Spring
A common reason behind seat belt issues is a weakening seat belt retractor. When the retractor’s spring weakens, the belt goes back. Remove the whole seat belt from the retractor and rotate it to fasten the spring. Then, reinstall the belt onto the retractor. That should solve the problem.
For most car owners, this method is too much work. And it doesn’t work for everyone either. Try this if you cannot get a replacement seat belt.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Leaning Forward Too Fast
If your car’s computer detects rapid movement or abrupt tugging on the seat belt, the seat belts lock in place. Although it may seem slightly inconvenient, this is the safety feature that will save your life. That said, the locking mechanism can get more sensitive for some reason, which would create the need for a seat belt inspection at the local repair shop.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Sudden Braking
The sudden change in speed as mentioned above can be due to acceleration or braking. In other words, spirited driving styles can make the owners experience locking seat belts more frequently.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Coming Down A Steep Hill
The majority of modern-day seat belts come with electronic or mechanical sensors that recognize vehicle inclination. This is why when the car drives downhill, seat belts might lock in the form of a precautionary measure.
Reasons Your Seat Belt Won’t Retract: Improper Installation
Rarer than the other mentioned reasons, but the improper installation of a seat belt can also make it difficult to retract. This kind of locking is generally termed as “reverse lock” since it is caused by the webbing retracting too much.
Is A Seat Belt Pretensioner Repairable?
The short answer is yes; you can repair a seat belt pre-tensioner. However, the more appropriate terminology here would be, “they can be reset to factory setting.” The seat belt retractor spool mechanism only resists movement when the car changes speed suddenly, but the pretensioner tightens the seat belt during particular types of crashes.
When the pretensioner is deployed, a kind of pyrotechnic charge is used – something used by airbags.
This is why many people think that once deployed, a replacement has to be installed for the seat belt assembly. Fortunately, there is no need for that. Certified professionals can reset the pretensioner to factory settings: single-stage, dual-stage, and triple-stage using OEM components. You will save hundreds of dollars this way.
How To Fix A Seat Belt That Won’t Retract
At this point, you possess a better idea about why your car’s seat belt won’t retract. Now that the problems have been discovered, we will mention several ways in which you can solve the problem.
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Check For Obstructions
Small objects can get lodged inside any section of the seatbelt and create a jam. For instance, an earring falls onto the car’s chair and makes its way inside the belt pillar loop. The pin of the earring will stick to the belt and that’s all – the seat belt won’t function properly.
Run a quick visual inspection around the different parts of the seat belt to make sure there are no obstructing objects. If the disintegrated bits of the stuck object cannot make it inside the core mechanism of the belt system, there should be no problem.
Pull The Belt
Pull the seat belt with moderate intensity and it could dislodge any small obstructions in this way. As you aren’t using a lot of force, you do not risk worsening the issue – especially if the problem is the seat belt mechanism. If, after a pull or two, the seat belt won’t retract, try other methods.
Unclog The Mechanism Of The Seat Belt
A clogged mechanism is a primary reason behind a stuck seat belt. The complex mechanics of a seat belt are working with a few moving bits. It comprises a spinning gear wheel that may get stuck after an extended period of use. If the mechanism is clogged, pulling out or retracting the seat belt becomes much more difficult.
Unfortunately, unclogging the mechanism is significantly more complicated and takes more time in comparison to some of the other techniques we will discuss here. However, with a bit of application, it is doable. Here’s how to do it:
Remove The Side Panel
The seat belt mechanism can be found underneath the side panel. Shift the seats and remove anything from that part of the car blocking the panel. Hold the panel down and remove the clip. You need a plier and screwdriver to loosen it.
Once the clips have been removed, the next step is to take out the side panel. Take your screwdriver once again and remove the panel if it is secured too tightly to the vehicle. In some cars, the panel can be removed with bare hands.
Remove The Mechanism
Bolts are generally used to secure the seat belt mechanism in charge of retraction. For that, you need the proper size keys, which are usually 10 to 14 mm (0.39” – 0.55”). Open the mechanism up and turn it sideways – that should show a plastic cap. Unfasten the small pins securing it and the mechanism can be opened easily.
Rotate The Gear Wheel
Once the gear wheel inside the mechanism has been opened, turn it clockwise using your fingers. This will unclog it. It’s a good sign if the wheel starts moving without any drags; it means the seat belt won’t get stuck anymore. Pull the seat belt to confirm the problem has been solved and reassemble what was removed. Here’s a helpful video on how to unclog a seat belt retractor.
Untangle The Belt
It has already been mentioned how the belt can get twisted from time to time. Here’s how you untangle it:
Uncover The Seat Belt
You must have a clear view of the seat belt to discover any hidden issues. The first thing to do is open up the entire length of the seat belt. Take off the plastic covers near the place where the belt retracts. Based on the cover, a flat tool can also be used to open this area. The flat end of the screwdriver will work fine.
Slip the tool under the plastic cover and bring it forward. If the backseat is the affected belt, you have to lower the seats before conducting the inspection.
Pull Out The Belt Completely
Once you can access the defective seat belt, pull it out. Use a clip or clamp-like object to keep the belt from going back. Use your fingers to slowly go over the whole length of the seat belt to straighten out the tangles. Small pieces and bits can get attached to the seat belt, making it difficult to retract. Removing any obstructing objects will loosen up the stuck belt.
Clean The Seat Belt
As you have already removed the seat belt, this is a great chance to clean the accumulated dirt. Many people make the mistake of not washing their seat belts for ages! The gathered dead skin cells, sweat, and loose bits and pieces of fabric can result in dirt buildup on the belt’s surface. In that condition, the texture of the belt may change – harden up.
The buildup of dirt is an unlikely reason why the belt would be stuck, but it is still a good idea to wash the grime off and prevent future problems. You can follow either of these two steps to clean your seat belt. Everything you will need for the processes, you can find in your home.
Two ways of cleaning the belt:
- Wet wipes
- Wash the fabric with laundry detergent and warm water
Cleaning With Wet Wipes
This process is faster and easier since there is no water or drying involved. However, we have found it to be less efficient. Although the wipes clean the filth, the fabric remains rigid. This is why a laundry detergent is our preference. Use this technique if the retracting power is just OK, but not to improve the situation. Here’s the process:
- Place an old towel over the car seat to protect the cover.
- Retract the belt as much as you can – as much as it allows.
- Place the laundry pinch before the plastic loop on the B pillar.
- Using a wet wipe, clean the fabric thoroughly. Make sure to clean both sides of the fabric.
- Remove the laundry pinch.
- Check to see if it functions properly.
The best thing about this process is that the seat belt can be used immediately; there is no need to dry. We suggest trying this method out first but if it does not work, you can wash the seat belt.
Washing With Laundry Detergent And Water
You will need:
- Bucket or washbowl (use a deep one to avoid spilling water around): fill the bucket with warm water and make a soapy solution by adding a spoonful of laundry detergent.
- Old towel: to protect the seat.
- Laundry pinch: to hold the seat belt in place.
- Hairdryer: only if you’re doing this in rainy or cold weather. In summer it isn’t necessary.
This process is performed inside the passenger cabin:
- Place the old towel over the car seat. Ensure the seat is well protected so even if water spills around, no damage is caused.
- Retract the belt as much as possible.
- Place the laundry pinch before the plastic loop on the B pillar.
- Submerge the seat belt fabric into the washbowl.
- Let it rest for 30 minutes.
- Take the fabric out of the washbowl carefully so it doesn’t spill.
- Dry the fabric as much as possible. You can do it by hand or use a hairdryer.
- Take the laundry pinch off.
- Test to make sure it functions properly.
A hairdryer will have to be used if you are doing this in cold weather. The outside temperature will not allow it to naturally dry and you don’t want wet patches on your clothes thanks to that. If conducted in the summertime, simply leave the belt on a towel to dry.
After cleaning the belt, you will be able to feel the fabric is smoother. It will move freely.
Check The Seat Belt And Reconstruct The Cover
Once the seat belt is dry, connect it to the machine again and let it retract gently. Pull it out again and then release it to make sure that it can comfortably return to its original position. If the belt retracts without any hesitation, you have successfully solved the issue. If the belt stays stuck, then you have to check the mechanism next.
Change The Pretensioners
Perhaps you got into an accident in the past with your car and the pretensioner is blown. Without functioning pretensions, the seat belt will remain stuck. Some owners repair these components, but we have found that it’s best to replace them entirely. Would you fix an airbag had it been possible? No, right? Pretensioners bear similarities to airbags; keep that in mind.
Disconnect The Auto-Lock Function
The car’s auto-lock function can make the seat belt lock up. Fortunately, it is easy to repair. To release the seat belt from this state, here’s what to do:
- Detach the seat belt and make sure nothing else is holding it down.
- Retract the belt as much as possible.
- Allow the seat belt to go back slowly into the retractor instead of pushing inside the fastening joint.
You might have to pull the belt a little to release the mechanism. Once the belt is released, confirm that it returns to its original position. When snapped back into place, the issue will be solved. In contrast, if the belt is loose and does not retract all the way, other options have to be explored.
Bringing The Car To A Repair Shop To Fix The Problem
If you’re somewhat unlucky and none of the above-mentioned techniques work for you, then you have to pay a repair shop to repair the stuck seat belt. It’s important to remember that the seat belt will get dirty after a lot of use. The bulk of seat belt problems are linked to issues with the mechanism.
Even seasoned DIY-ers steer clear of handling smaller car parts. In this instance, it’s best to head to the repair shop. Plus, you don’t risk causing more damages to your vehicle. Of course, that is only applicable if you pick an auto shop experienced in seat belt issues. Ask around and make sure there is nothing more you can do before investing money. Older cars are trickier to do and can be more expensive.
There are quite a few reasons why a seat belt won’t retract. Typically, a quick troubleshooting session will help you find the root of the problems. When none of the minor fixes mentioned above work, you have to get inside the seat belt’s retraction mechanism. Either way, it is of utmost importance to fix any problems with your car’s seat belt because it is a matter of life and death.
These tools have been tried and tested by our team, they are ideal for fixing your car at home.