Auto Safety & Seatbelts: Why use Safety Restraint Systems? Seatbelts can save lives.

  • February 15, 2010
  • Blog

Prevention of getting thrown form the vehicle (ejection) is one of the main reasons to use seatbelts. 1 Recently I had the opportunity to review accident reconstruction reports on the VCU Transportation Safety Training Center website. 2 One report reconstructs two multiple fatality crashes that occurred six days apart on interstate highways in Virginia. 3 Both crashes were single vehicle crashes, where the vehicles rolled over, involving out-of-state drivers who were transporting family members across the state in sport utility vehicles. Failure to use safety restraints (seatbelts) was a factor in ejection and/or death of some of the fatalities in each crash.

In the first crash, all of the fatalities were due to ejection-related injuries. The driver in this crash stated she saw a deer ahead in the road and swerved to avoid the animal. Her unbelted brother in the front passenger seat had been sleeping but awoke at the sudden movement. The driver overcorrected again, causing the vehicle to begin rotating and then roll over.

The benefits of wearing safety restraints were dramatically highlighted in this crash. There were nine occupants in the vehicle; early in the investigation, it was reported that none of the occupants were restrained prior to the crash. Further research revealed that two of the survivors were likely wearing their restraints. These two – the driver and the right middle seat passenger – were the only occupants who were not ejected during the rollover. The driver did not suffer serious injuries. The right middle seat passenger said that he had been wearing his safety restraint. He remained in the vehicle as it flipped, suffering non-life threatening injuries. Most likely he was struck by some of the other occupants as they were tossed about and ejected through the window to his right. 4 The other seven occupants were ejected, including children ages 4, 6, 9 and 11 years. By law, the children were all required to be restrained but were not. The four-year-old boy suffered injuries to his lower back. The 6-year-old girl had chest and pulmonary contusions. The 11-year-old boy survived with head injuries but the 9-year-old died from massive abdominal and extremity injuries, both from blunt and sharp forces. His father, the front seat passenger, died from blunt force head injuries. The children’s grandparents both died as well.

The second case in this study involved a family of five traveling on a rural interstate highway. The 22-year-old female driver was accompanied by four other female members of her extended family. Her 57-year-old mother sat in the right front seat and both women wore their lap/shoulder restraints. The driver’s 28-year-old sister-in-law sat on the left side of the rear bench seat (behind the driver), with her 6-year-old daughter beside her in the center position. Neither wore restraints. The driver’s 18-month-old daughter sat on the right side of the rear bench seat in a forward-facing child safety seat with a tray shield. The women were following a vehicle carrying other members of the family.

Speed, overcorrection and recovery control were factors in the crash. The SUV began to roll in the grass median. The VCU-TSTC report is very detailed; I will not go into all of the detail. The two unbelted rear seat occupants were ejected onto the pavement. All five occupants died as a result of injuries sustained; the belted driver and front seat passenger sustained fatal injuries due to the intrusive damage to their area of the vehicle and the severe rotational forces (the vehicle flipped and tumbled numerous times). As in the previous case, the lack of safety restraint use contributed to the high number of fatalities. The two ejected rear seat passengers could potentially have survived the crash as there was less intrusion or crushing into the occupant space. With regard to the child in the safety seat, a witness who was on the scene stated the crotch strap on the car seat was not buckled. Not only is it imperative to use restraint systems in your vehicle, it is important to properly use the systems. 5


1 – Most people don’t realize that seatbelts primarily prevent an occupant from being ejected from the vehicle; seatbelts generally do not prevent a person from hitting the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the back of the seat in front of them, although they can significantly lessen the impact and spread the force across your body. For instance, an abrupt stop at a speed of 30 mph would send you flying forwards with a force of between 30 and 60 times your own body weight. Even reducing the force of that impact of your body against the interior of the car can result in significantly reduced injuries. See http://www.car-accident-claim.com/car-accident/car-accidents-seat-belts-and-airbags.htm.

2 – See http://www.vcu.edu/cppweb/tstc/.

3 Report No. 203 (Jan. 2008), at http://www.vcu.edu/cppweb/tstc/pdfs/Report%20208.pdf.

4 – This is another reason to insist that other occupants of a vehicle you are in also buckle up; if they don’t, their bodies become projectiles that can cause injury to you!

5 – EDITOR’S NOTE: As illustrated by both of these tragic accidents, overcorrection is often the cause of fatal accidents. One tip stressed by all auto safety instructors is that if one or both wheels go off the pavement to the right, DO NOT attempt to turn back onto the pavement until you have greatly reduced your speed. You should drive along with one or both wheels off the pavement, gently applying your brakes, until the car has slowed to a very moderate speed before trying to turn back onto the pavement. Otherwise, as you turn sharply to get back onto the road, your tire can easily catch on the edge of the road and cause your vehicle to cross into oncoming traffic almost instantaneously. The Isuzu website on operating an SUV contains the following: “WARNING: If your vehicle goes off the edge of the pavement, slow down but do not suddenly apply the brakes. Gradually bring the vehicle back onto the pavement after you have reduced speed, being careful not to turn the steering wheel too sharply.” http://www.isuzu.com/owners_driving_4x4.jsp For other examples, see New York State Driver’s Manual, Driving Emergencies: Running Off the Pavement, at http://www.nydmv.state.ny.us/DMANUAL/chapter10-manual.htm#drv-emg; and Iowa State DOT “Senior Driver’s Workbook”, Question 10, at http://www.seniordrivers.org/lpp/pdf/IowaSeniorDriverWorkbook.pdf.