Airbags + Seat Belts = Spine Protection

Motor Vehicle Accidents and Spinal Cord Injury
Did you know that motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of spinal cord injury? According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Database, motor vehicle accidents have accounted for more than a third of all reported cases of spinal cord injury!


Motor vehicle accidents also account for other injuries to the spine such as whiplash, vertebral fractures, and herniated discs. It is not unusual for some spine injuries to become apparent weeks or even months following an accident. Some injuries that appear later may be severe.

Bigger is Not Necessarily Better
Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) are everywhere. Some people say they feel safer in a large, heavy-duty vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that since 1992 there have been more fatalities involving SUVs and cars than in car-to-car accidents. Although NHTSA attributes this to the differences in vehicle weight and height, they also reported that SUVs are four times more likely to roll over during high-speed maneuvers. It doesn't matter if you drive an SUV, a Corvette, a Honda Civic, or a Mercedes S Class sedan. What does matter is to understand that each vehicle type is designed with a different center of gravity for a particular style of driving.

Advent of Vehicle Restraints
Seat belts became available in new cars during the early 1970s. Shoulder belts followed shortly thereafter. Beginning in 1985, American car manufacturers offered airbags as part of a 'supplemental restraint' system in automobiles. Trucks and SUVs have trailed safety automobile requirements for passenger vehicles. Trucks and some SUVs have been the last to get padded dashboards, collapsible steering columns, ABS brakes, and side airbags.

Since their introduction, airbags have become a controversial topic. It is true that some people have sustained serious injury from airbag deployment. However, the fact is that airbags combined with seat belts (lap and shoulder belt) do save lives and help prevent more serious injury.

Recent Research Proves Airbag/Seat Belt Effectiveness
Results from an eight-year study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was presented at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Researchers found airbags combined with seat belts effectively reduced spinal injuries from automobile accidents.

The medical records of 7,170 patients who suffered spinal injury in automobile crashes were analyzed, resulting in remarkable outcomes. The study compared four groups of patients. The first group wore no protective devices, Group 2: seat belt only, Group 3: airbag only, Group 4: seatbelt and airbag. The study revealed the majority (36-38%) of the injuries involved the cervical spine (neck).

Seat Belts and Airbags Work Best Together
Airbags were never designed to replace seat belts. That is why an airbag is called a 'supplemental restraint.' When the airbag deploys, the seat belt helps protect the occupant by providing body support and preventing occupant ejection. The airbag creates a cushion between the occupant and the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield or other surfaces. Airbags are designed to protect the head, neck, and chest.

The NHTSA urges drivers to put 10 inches between their breastbone and the steering wheel to prevent injury from airbag deployment. The risk zone for drivers occurs during the first two to three inches of airbag inflation. Ten inches is a good safety margin.

Child Safety
Children age 12 and under should ride in the back seat properly restrained. If a child must ride in the passenger's front seat, the NHTSA suggests the seat be moved as far back from the airbag as possible. The seat and shoulder belts should be secure about the child. If necessary, provide a booster seat. Never allow children to ride in the laps of other passengers!

Common Sense
Although many motor vehicle accidents cannot be prevented, drivers and passengers can do something to reduce the risk for spinal injury. Combining airbags with properly adjusted seat and shoulder belts is a good start.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers excellent information about airbags, seat belts, children, infants and other related issues.

Updated on: 09/14/15
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Rehabilitation after Spinal Cord Injury
I would fully agree with this article, and also emphasize the importance of the combined use of seat belt/shoulder harness restraints with the presence of the air bag. The air bags are designed to function appropriately when the occupant is in the proper seating position. Without a seat belt/shoulder harness in place, many times the occupant has changed position in the seat due a sudden impact, and that is when an air bag may be less protective or even able to induce further injury. The seat belt/shoulder harness system and the air bags truly work in conjunction with one another and should not be thought of as separate safety systems.

Additionally, each year, there is a "Spinal Cord Injury Season." This is the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is during this time that the greatest number of Spinal Cord Injuries occur each year. While motor vehicle accidents (without seat belted occupants) are one of the more common causes of spinal cord injury throughout the year, it is during the summer months that the greatest overall number of such injuries occur. Additional seasonal causes of such injuries are diving injuries and motorcycle accidents. In each of these instances there are measures that can be taken by the participant that greatly reduce the risk of Spinal Cord Injury. In addition to regular, appropriate seat belt, use the theme of the National Head and Spinal Cord Injury Prevention Program ("Feet First, First Time"). That is especially important during summer months.

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Rehabilitation after Spinal Cord Injury

After a spinal cord injury (SCI), you may need to go through rehabilitation to learn how to face various physical, occupational, and emotional challenges.
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