Medical center urges automakers to rethink seatbelt sizing

Even well into her 70s, Helen Kessler says she still feels confident on the road. But, because of her height and the way her seat belt is positioned, she's not always comfortable behind the wheel.

"I just put it across me and it usually goes across here, but by the time I get done driving, it's up closer here and I just pull it down each time," she says.

That's not uncommon.

Seatbelt designs were based on dummies resembling averaged sized, 40-year-old men decades ago. Now, drivers are more diverse and seatbelts can be less effective.

"It's not enough to keep someone my size, maybe, back in my seat and it's probably too much force to keep an elderly occupant in their seat, which could cause thoracic injuries," she says. 

So, to better protect a wider range of drivers, researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are working with automakers to rethink safety systems, starting with smaller models that more closely represent more fragile, older drivers.

"We're doing some studies to look at how strong are their ribs, how do they interact with the seatbelt, potentially with airbags, in a side impact scenario," says John Bolte, Ph.D., Ohio State College of Medicine.

Bolte says even minor accidents often cause injuries along the seatbelt line - in the collar bone, ribs and pelvis - and in younger drivers, that's rarely serious.

"But someone that's older, a couple rib fractures, flail chest, problems breathing, pneumonia - it can really build up and cause a lot more issues," he says.

Studies show older drivers involved in serious accidents were wearing seatbelts more than any other age group, but because they're more fragile, they're less likely to survive.

Which is why experts here are working to improve the very systems designed to protect them. .


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