(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Since they were first required by law nearly 40 years ago, seat belts have undoubtedly helped save countless lives. But today, with more than 36 million American drivers on the road over the age of 65, researchers are revisiting seat belt designs in an effort to better protect older drivers.
“When seat belts were first designed, they used safety dummies that represented the ‘average’ driver, which back then was a normal sized 40-year-old man,” said John Bolte, PhD, associate professor of health and rehabilitation sciences at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “The size and demographics of American drivers has certainly changed, but the basic seat belt designs haven’t, and we need to address that.”
Bolte and industry partners are teaming up to help develop the next generation of seat belts, primarily because the very systems that are supposed to protect drivers are actually contributing to their injuries. Even in minor accidents, ill-fitting belts can cause everything from fractured ribs to a flailed chest to a broken pelvis.
“For a younger driver, these types of injuries are rarely life-threatening,” said Bolte, “But for someone who’s older, a couple of fractured ribs or flailed chest can lead to problems with breathing and even the chance for pneumonia. It can very quickly cause some serious issues.”
In fact, studies show in serious crashes drivers over the age of 65 wear seat belts more than any other age group. However, because they are more fragile, their chances of survival are lower.
To address those issues, newly-designed crash tests are being conducted using smaller crash test dummiesthat resemble more fragile occupants. “Once we understand the position of the driver or passenger in the crash, we will be able to better understand where injuries are most likely occur,” said Bolte. “That information can be used to improve seat belts, airbags, even the entire safety system, especially for older, more vulnerable drivers.”