Why Fasten Your Seat Belt?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Newfoundland
THE January morning dawned cold and sunny on the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland. An overnight shower of freezing rain had left the highway covered with a treacherous blanket of shimmering ice. But by 10 a.m. the sun’s rays had melted the ice, leaving seemingly ideal driving conditions. Unknown to the northbound salesman hurrying home and the southbound family heading for town, the road remained very slippery where the shade from the roadside cliff covered the highway. On that short stretch of icy road, the salesman’s car skidded out of control, colliding with the family car and careening over a nearby cliff. By 11 a.m. a young wife and mother of four lay dying in the hospital, while the seriously injured salesman waited in agony for an ambulance. All had neglected to fasten their seat belts.
While details vary, the sad story is repeated thousands of times each year on the world’s highways, as tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in automobile accidents. In 1976, about 47,000 people died on the highways of the United States. Many more have met death in other countries. Despite concerted efforts in recent years to improve the safety of automobile travel—padded dashboards, collapsible steering columns, reinforced body frames, lowered speed limits and better police surveillance—the fact remains that each time a person travels in an automobile, he faces the very real risk of injury or death. Of great concern to all who value life is the question: What can be done to reduce the risk of serious injury or death in an automobile accident?
One simple, yet practical suggestion is: Fasten your seat belts.
How Seat Belts Work to Protect You
A person’s understanding what happens in an automobile collision may help him to appreciate the value of seat belts. When, for example, a car collides with a solid barrier at 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour, actually there are two collisions: (1) The car’s collision, in which the automobile hits the barrier, buckles and then comes to a stop in about one tenth of a second, and (2) the “human collision,” in which a person’s body is hurled with crushing impact against some part of the car’s interior. During the one tenth of a second in which the car is coming to a standstill, a person’s body continues to move at a speed of 30 miles per hour. Hence, when the body strikes glass or metal, serious injury or death usually results because the body absorbs most of the impact.
Likewise, in a 30-mile-per-hour crash, the car’s front end yields perhaps two feet (.6 meter) on impact as it is crushed and bent. However, when a person collides with the dashboard or windshield, he usually stops over a much shorter distance, perhaps one to two inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters). This difference in stopping distance means that an individual will stop much more abruptly than the automobile. So, to allow the body to come to a more gradual stop, thus greatly reducing impact forces on it, all the car’s stopping distance must be utilized. This is accomplished by the seat belt. By holding the individual in his seat, the belt makes him a part of the car. The effect of a seat belt can be understood by comparing the results from falling on soft ground with those from falling the same distance on concrete. The soft ground yields, perhaps a couple of inches, providing a greater stopping distance and reducing the force of the impact. The unyielding concrete stops a person much more abruptly, resulting in greater impact and, therefore, greater injury. Like the soft ground that yields, the seat belt gives a person an additional 2 feet (.6 meter) in which to stop. The force of the impact, now considerably reduced, is borne by the hips and shoulders, and these parts of the body can best withstand the force.
Do Seat Belts Really Work?
In recent years, extensive laboratory research and on-the-scene accident investigations have been carried out by scientists interested in determining the value and limitations of seat belts. For example, in a 1966 report, N. I. Bohlin states that experiments with specially instrumented dummies and human volunteers in simulated crashes established beyond question the value of seat belts in significantly reducing the risk of injury and death. Data supporting this conclusion was gathered from instrument records and slow-motion film of remote-controlled crashes.
Of course, laboratory experiments cannot simulate the more complex real collisions. Therefore, on-the-scene studies have been undertaken by teams of engineers and doctors. What have they concluded? According to the booklet The Human Collision (published by the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of Transportation and Communications), about half or more of the deaths and serious injuries could have been avoided in the accidents if lap-and-shoulder belts had been worn. Additionally, statistics have been compiled by authorities in countries where mandatory seat-belt legislation has been enacted. For instance, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation reports that during 1976, in Ontario, there were accidents involving 61,221 unbelted drivers, of whom 355 were killed. Belted drivers, however, were involved in 269,772 accidents, with 153 fatalities. Thus it was concluded that ‘a belted driver’s survival chances in a collision are ten times higher than an unbelted driver’s.’
Similarly, a widely publicized report from Sweden in the mid-1960’s concluded, from a study of 28,000 records involving all kinds of accidents, that belted people received about half as many injuries as unbelted persons at all speeds. Remarkably, at speeds of up to 60 miles (96 kilometers) per hour, no one wearing a seat belt was killed. Yet, unbelted people were killed in collisions at speeds of less than 20 miles (32 kilometers) per hour.
But some ask: What if my car goes into the water, or catches on fire? Such fears discourage many people from wearing seat belts. However, the facts show that the chance of being trapped in a submerged car, or in a burning automobile, are very rare compared with the possibility of a head-on collision. Even if a person should become involved in one of these rare accidents, the seat belt still reduces the risk of injury causing unconsciousness. Obviously, a person cannot escape from a sinking or burning car if he is lying on the floor with a fractured skull.
Protect Your Children
Some may feel that a small child can be protected in a car accident by being held securely in the arms of an adult. However, a child weighing 30 pounds (14 kilograms), when thrown in a 30-mile-per-hour impact, exerts a force of 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms). Who is strong enough to restrain that immense weight?
If a child is over five years old, or weighs more than 50 pounds (23 kilograms), he can wear a regular lap belt. Placing the child on a firm cushion or pillow may make the lap belt fit more snugly over the child’s hips. This will also put the child in a raised position, enabling him to see better, thus reducing boredom and irritability. It is recommended that children under five or weighing less than 50 pounds be placed in specially designed, safety-approved seats, which now are widely available.
“But my child is so restless,” some may argue. At first this may be a problem, but patience and firmness will soon get the young one accustomed to his own seat. One couple with a child of four reports that the youngster, though objecting at first, now protests loudly when he is not belted securely in the seat.
Achieving Maximum Protection for You and Your Passengers
The first step in securing protection is always to fasten seat belts. Many fatal accidents occur at low speeds, near home, and under ideal driving conditions. For maximum protection with a seat belt, be sure that it is snugly adjusted over the hips, that the shoulder harness has no more than two inches (5 centimeters) of slack, and that the belts are not twisted. Secondly, encourage all passengers to fasten their seat belts for their protection and yours. The driver’s belt is of little benefit if an unbelted passenger becomes a missile inside his car, being hurled against him with a force of several thousand pounds.
The life we have is a precious gift. It is much too valuable to be treated carelessly. Appreciating its value should move us to take the necessary precautions to prevent injury to or the death of ourselves and others. Some common-sense steps will reduce the risk of death or injury while we are traveling. We should drive carefully and defensively, avoid combining drinking with driving, stay within the speed limits and keep the automobile in good condition. And a most vital precaution that requires little effort and only a few seconds is: FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!