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Are seat belts safe for older drivers?

We use seat belts to be safer on the road, but what happens when they’re not designed to protect the people using them?

Improperly fitted seat belts still save lives, but they may not protect older drivers from serious injuries that could become life threatening, such as fractured ribs or a broken pelvis. It’s a problem worth solving for the 36 million older drivers on America’s roads today.

A research team at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center is working with partners in the automotive industry to improve safety system designs and reduce injuries in drivers over 65.

“The goal of our data will assist with safety design modifications to better protect the older, more vulnerable drivers,” said John Bolte, director of Ohio State’s Injury Biomechanics Research Laboratory who is leading a research team.

Specifically, researchers are examining side-impact crashes and their effects on smaller crash test dummies, which better represent drivers with more fragile features and lower body mass. They document position and properties of the upper body to better predict appropriate protection.

Seat belts were first designed when the average driver was a 40-year-old, 170-pound male. Even with today’s advanced understanding of the human body, the biggest obstacle facing researchers and seat belt safety is human variation.

“Age isn’t the best predictor of how someone responds to injury,” Bolte said. “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 say drivers will someday carry personalized key fobs that activate customized safety systems based on individual physiology. But for now, it’s best to keep wearing your seat belt.