Down the road: better seatbelts for seniors

Ohio researchers say today’s seat belts weren’t designed to protect the smaller, frailer seniors who account for tens of millions of drivers in the U.S alone. “When seat belts were first designed four decades ago, safety dummies tested in car crash simulations resembled the average-size male driver of 40 years old and weighing approximately 170 pounds,” said John Bolte, an associate professor of health and rehabilitation sciences and director of Ohio State University’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center. This standard seat belt design can be less effective for older drivers, Bolte said, and cause fatal harm due to injuries sustained along the path of the belt.

“If someone doesn’t adjust the height of their shoulder belt, and if that belt is up around the neck, you will have severe neck injuries,” Bolte explained.“If it’s under your arm, it will lead to rib fractures.” To reduce injury in drivers 65 and older, Bolte and colleagues at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center are collaborating with automakers to measure properties of the thorax and upper body in older drivers to better predict how crash-related impact affects them. The project’s new simulations use smaller crash test dummies to better represent older, frailer drivers, in order to design better protection.

“Like most things, injuries can be more disabling in older drivers,” said Richard Marottoli, a professor of medicine and medical director of the Dorothy Adler Geriatric Assessment Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Pain from the injury “can affect respiration, and if you have any underlying lung problems, it can make those worse as well.” Marottoli, who is not associated with the research project, said seat belt-related injury is a significant issue among older drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, close to 600 older adults are injured each day in car crashes.Common injuries, including cracked ribs and broken pelvises, can be life-threatening.