Study Shows Tie between Seatbelt Use and Traumatic Brain Injury

Seatbelt Use and Traumatic Brain InjuryIn the U.S., car accidents cause more traumatic brain injuries than any other type of accident. To reduce brain and other injuries, the federal government began requiring seatbelts in all new cars in 1966.[1] Since then, the number of traumatic brain injuries and their severity has decreased significantly, but only for passengers who remember to use their seatbelts.

Bodies Become Bullets in Crashes

New Jersey State Highway Traffic Safety Director Pam Fisher explains that unbelted passengers become a “bullet” in a crash. When a crash happens, their bodies continue to move at the same speed the car was traveling before the crash. The only thing that stops the motion is the body’s collision with other objects in the car, whether they are front seats, steering wheels or windshields. [2]

Seatbelt use has increased steadily in recent years as states begin implementing primary seatbelt laws instead of secondary ones. Primary laws let police officers stop drivers for failing to wear a seatbelt. Secondary laws only allow police to issue seatbelt tickets after stopping a driver for another reason.

Relationship between Seatbelts and Brain Injuries

A group of researchers from Drexel University and Saint Joseph’s University of Pennsylvania conducted a retrospective study of 171 subjects. Medical records were taken from a pool of applicants to the Pennsylvania Head Injury Program (PHIP) between the years 1985 and 1996.[3] The researchers only chose subjects who had no prior head injuries and who had been injured in a motor vehicle crash.

Researchers categorized 27 locations of injury, based on the section of the brain that was damaged. When viewed in three dimensions, the brain has an outer cortical section, a middle subcortical section and the innermost brainstem. These depths of the brain could sustain injury to the front or back lobes, at the sides or top, or deep within the vital operating parts of the brain.  These injuries were also rated by severity.

Seatbelts Reduce Number and Severity of Brain Injuries

The researchers found that seatbelt use greatly reduced instances of brain injury in general. They noted that of the subjects in the study, only 21% wore seatbelts. When compared with the national average at the time of 67%, it appears that those who do not wear seatbelts are more likely to sustain brain injury.

While the numbers of frontal lobe injuries and brain stem injuries in belted and unbelted passengers showed little difference, the severity of the injuries differed greatly. The study showed that those wearing seatbelts endured shortened periods of loss of consciousness and shorter hospital stays for all types of brain injury.

Unbelted passengers showed more injuries to the posterior cortical (rear outer) portion of the brain than belted passengers. This makes sense given that seatbelts hold the body in place, creating less space for the head to gain momentum before falling back to strike the seat.

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[1] http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/Esv/esv16/98S6W24.PDF
[2] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-08-18-seat-belt-rear_N.htm
[3] http://schatz.sju.edu/research/nan97b/

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