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On the road: better seat belts for seniors

(2010 Getty Images)

Ohio researchers say that today’s seat belts were not designed to protect the smaller, frailer seniors who are responsible for tens of millions of drivers in the U. S only.

“When seat belts were first designed four decades ago, safety dummies tested in a car-accident simulations looked like the average size male driver of 40 years old and with a weight of about 170 pounds,” said John Bolte, a professor of health and rehabilitation sciences and director of the Ohio State University Injury Biomechanics Research Center. This standard seatbelt design may be less effective for older drivers, Bolte said, and lead to irreparable damages as a result of injuries sustained along the path of the belt.

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“If someone does not adjust the height of their shoulder belt, and that belt around the neck, you have severe neck injuries,” Bolte explained. “If it’s under your arm, they will lead to rib fractures.”

For the reduction of injury in drivers of 65 years and older, Bolte and colleagues at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, together with vehicle manufacturers to measure the properties of the chest and the rest of the body in older drivers to better predict how the crash-related impact of the influence on them.

The project of the new simulations with smaller crash test dummies to better represent older, frailer drivers for the design of 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. The pain of the injury “can affect the breathing, and if you have an underlying lung problems, it can make that worse.”

Marottoli, which is not associated with the research, said seat belt-related injuries is a important problem for the older drivers.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, close to 600 older adults are injured every day in car accidents. The most common injuries, including broken ribs and a broken pelvis can be life-threatening.

More than 36 million drivers in the US are now at the age of 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By 2030, the AAA predicts that the number will exceed 60 million.

“In a decade or two, the needs of the ageing driving population is going to be the effect of changes that are needed in infrastructure, vehicles, and laws to manage driving,” said Jake Nelson, the AAA director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “The needs of this floating population will dictate automotive safety technology.”

Nelson says automakers to develop inflatable seat belts that will help older adults by distributing the force of a crash over a larger surface area. The hope is that the chest injuries will turn out to be less serious and less likely.

“People should wear their seat belt,” Bolte says. “There may be smarter straps, and they could reduce the injuries we had.”

In the next ten years, he said, new technology can come with a personalized car key fob to activate a custom security system in each vehicle. The key fob could adjust a seat belt on the basis of a driver’s individual physiology.

Until that technology exists, he advises drivers of all ages to continue to wear a seat belt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration argues that seat belts saved 14,000 lives in 2015.

“Seat belts work,” Bolte says. “But some people still get hurt, and we can stop that from happening.”

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