Helen Kessler, 76, of Columbus, Ohio fastens her seatbelt before driving.
Photo courtesy of The Ohio State University

As baby boomers age, their risk of life-threatening injuries from car crashes increases. Although car seat belts save the lives of many drivers, they don’t always provide optimal safety for everyone.

To improve safety and reduce injury in drivers past age 65, researchers from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and industry partners are measuring impact and injuries sustained from side-impact crashes involving elderly drivers wearing seat belts.

John Bolte, associate professor of health and rehabilitation sciences at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and director of Ohio State’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center, is analyzing side-impact injuries to help improve safety system designs for the 36 million elderly drivers on America’s roads.

“When seat belts were first designed about four decades ago, safety dummies tested in car crash simulations resembled the average-size male driver of 40 years old and weighing approximately 170 lb,” says Bolte, also principal investigator of the study. “Now, thanks to advanced technology, instrumentation, and imaging, we know a lot more about the human body and its bones and how they respond to crashes than we did 20 years ago, yet researchers say the biggest obstacle that remains is human variation.”

Bolte adds, “Age isn’t the best predictor of how someone responds to injury. We need to move the field away from age and into something more scientifically based, such as looking at properties of the thorax or upper body to better predict how much impact is associated with certain injuries.”

Researchers prepare to perform crash tests on a smaller, more fragile crash-test dummy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Researchers hope to test new seat belt systems that might better protect elderly drivers from injury.
Photo courtesy of The Ohio State University

Researchers are conducting simulations using crash test dummies that better represent the elderly. While measuring impact, they’ll also document position and properties of the upper body to better predict appropriate protection.

Industry experts say that improperly fitted seat belts save lives, but also can cause injury. To a young driver, some injuries sustained during car crashes won’t always be critical. However, for an elderly driver, fractured ribs or a broken pelvis can quickly become life threatening.

“We’re hopeful our data will assist with safety design modifications to better protect the older, more vulnerable drivers,” Bolte says.

Researchers predict one day, individuals will have a car key fob that activates a customized safety system within their vehicles, adjusting the seat belt based on their individual physiology.

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center