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What You Need to Know About Seat Belt Injuries

Sep 1, 2022

Seat Belt InjuriesEach year over 35,000 people in the United States die in car accidents. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of dying in a car accident by 45% and can prevent serious injuries that could lead to disability and chronic pain. Seat belts keep the wearer from being ejected from the vehicle, a significant risk factor for death and disability. Still, there can be seat belt injuries, even though they are almost always less severe than what one would experience if not wearing one at all. Seeing a car accident doctor, like those at AICA College Park, can help identify if any seat belt injuries have occurred and help the individual recover with better outcomes.

How Do Seat Belts Work?

Seat belts work by providing a restraint against the kinetic energy generated during a car accident. Kinetic energy is created by the mass of the wearer and the velocity at which the car is traveling. In a car accident, there is a rapid deceleration of the vehicle, but the body will continue to travel within that space even after the car is stopped. Unfortunately, the body will keep moving at the same rate that the car was moving before the accident occurred. The result is that the person can be ejected from the vehicle or hit the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield at a high velocity. The seat belt is designed to keep the body from moving forward and the wearer from being severely injured or killed.

Current seat belts that are worn across the lap and shoulder also disperse the kinetic energy across the body in an even manner so that no one spot takes the brunt of the forces of the accident. Imagine poking someone with one finger with all your might. That reduced surface area of contact concentrates the force of the action into that one spot, and it may hurt quite a bit more than if you used the entire palm of your hand to exert the same force. The same principles apply to seat belts in a car accident. If the seat belt is worn correctly, the force of the car accident becomes distributed across the body rather than being focused in one spot. Correctly wearing the seatbelt properly distributes that energy over the strongest parts of the body, the shoulders and pelvis.

Why Wearing a Seatbelt Is Important

Wearing a seat belt is not just critically important to keeping you alive in a car accident; it can prevent serious injury that could change your entire life. Many people suffer expensive and painful injuries after a car accident. That can cost the individual their quality of life and personal assets as they heal. Costs from a car accident injury can quickly exceed $25,000, with more serious injuries leading to higher costs. While seeking the care of a qualified car accident doctor can reduce the time they have to wait to get back to well-being, preventing injury is best.

It is the law to wear a seat belt in all but one state in the U.S. States with laws that allow primary ticketing for seat belt violations have lower rates of car accident fatalities. In 2020, almost 11 thousand people died due to being unrestrained in a car accident. Those lives could have been saved with the use of a seat belt, regardless of the law. The risk of dying in a car accident due to wearing a seat belt is 45%, making it the most effective single thing you can do to protect your life in the car.

What Injuries Can Occur from a Seatbelt?

Wearing a Seatbelt Is ImportantSeat belt injuries almost always occur because the seat belt was worn incorrectly. The lap portion of the seat belt should always be worn low on the hips across the pelvis, not across the stomach. Wearing it too high on the abdomen can result in crushing injuries to the internal organs, such as the stomach, intestines, spleen, and liver. The force across the abdomen can also tear critical blood vessels, like the aorta. If the lower body moves out of pace with the upper body and the belt is worn too high, the force could cause a spinal fracture, which carries a risk of paralysis.

The shoulder strap should cross over the clavicle (collar bone), go between the nipples, and down to the hip connection. Wearing the strap too close to the neck can cause injury to the cervical spine and the blood vessels in the neck. If the strap is worn behind the body, the effect is the same as if the individual was not wearing a belt at all. The force becomes focused entirely on the lap belt, and the head and upper body are unrestrained. This can lead to injuries to the face, head, neck, spine, and more. Wearing the strap over the shoulder itself can cause damage to the joint, such as dislocation and torn tendons or ligaments. Injuries such as whiplash from the unrestrained neck, broken ribs from the belt, and spinal injuries from a poorly fitted lap belt are the more common injuries seen from seat belts. Musculoskeletal injuries have better outcomes when treated by qualified orthopedic specialists, such as those at AICA College Park.

Even when worn properly, injuries can occur due to the sheer force of the crash itself pressing the body into the seat belt. This often results in what is called seat belt syndrome, a set of injuries associated with the force of the body against the belt in a car accident. These seat belt injuries present with the seat belt sign, which is a bruising or discoloration along the path of the seat belt on the body. This sign may occur with fractures of the spine, pelvis, or ribs. Internal organs may be perforated, i.e., torn, by the force of the belt. That can mean injury to the intestines, spleen, heart, lungs, and blood vessels. While these injuries can be severe, they are generally recognized to be a consequence of having survived an otherwise fatal or catastrophic accident.

Some research suggests that spinal and neurological injuries in a car accident may be worse if a seatbelt is worn. It is important to note that while the severity of the injuries is slightly higher in those who wear seatbelts, it is likely because the belt allowed the wearer to survive an accident that would otherwise have been fatal rather than as an effect of the belt itself. In other words, seat belt injuries occur as a by-product of their intended goal, which is to keep you alive. They are not without risk of harm because most car accidents are violent collisions that cause harm in some manner. Fortunately, if one can survive the accident itself, then one also has the chance for a recovery.

How to Know if You Are Injured after a Car Accident

It can be very difficult to assess yourself for seat belt injuries after a car accident, which is why it is so important to see an experienced and qualified car accident doctor. Clues that you may have a seat belt injury include bruising, redness, pain, and swelling of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. Bruises may take several days to appear if they are related to an internal injury, so do not wait for them to appear to seek care if you have discomfort or pain. Advanced imaging may be needed to determine if there are injuries after a car accident. Seat belt-associated injuries often leave a characteristic bruising across the chest and abdomen where the seat belt rested during the accident. It is prudent to seek care after any accident, even if you aren’t sure you are hurt. This is because the brain can mask pain and prevent us from knowing when we are hurt after a stressful event, part of what is called the flight or fight response.

How to Prevent Injuries

To prevent seat belt injuries, the wearer must use the seat belt appropriately and according to the manufacturers’ directions. The vast majority of seat belt injuries occur due to improper use of seat belts, which can lead to catastrophic consequences. Ensure you are using your belt correctly, that it fits, and that it is functional at all times.

Tips to ensure your seat belt is worn properly:

  • The shoulder belt should be worn across the collar bone, between the nipples, and to the hip. It should never rest on the neck, be worn behind the shoulders, or be stuck behind the back.
  • The lap belt should be worn low across the hip and pelvis, ideally touching the upper thighs. Do not wear it over the abdomen, where it can crush soft internal organs in an accident.
  • Keep your seat in an upright position when wearing your seat belt. Limit the distance between your body and the seat, particularly the head and the headrest.
  • Always maintain the belt in good working order. If you notice a problem, get it addressed with the manufacturer or car dealer promptly.
  • The belt should be snug without any slack.
  • Find the right fit. If you need them, extenders are available to make the belts longer, as are adjusters to help with height issues.
  • Have older cars retrofitted with modern seat belts for safety.
  • Use it each and every time you drive. Even a short trip in your neighborhood can be serious, with most fatal accidents occurring within 25 miles of the residence.


Should I wear a seat belt if I am pregnant?

Pregnant women should always use their seat belt, but it should be below the baby bump and against the hips.

Isn’t an airbag enough?

Seat belts are designed to work in conjunction with airbags, not instead of them or vice versa. When an airbag deploys, it does so with a great deal of force. Wearing a seat belt can prevent injuries to the head and face from impact with a rapidly expanding airbag.

What if I am in water or a fire?

Accidents with water and fire are very rare, representing less than 1% of car accidents. Tools can be purchased and kept in the vehicle to cut seat belts if needed, but most emergency personnel have the equipment to get you safely out of any car after an accident.

If people die wearing seat belts, why bother?

44% of people who died in car accidents in 2020 were restrained by a seat belt or child safety seat. That does not mean that seat belts contributed to their deaths, rather than the severity of the accident being such that it was not survivable even with the additional protection. Seat belts are one of the best ways to prevent serious injuries and fatalities. Obeying traffic laws also significantly reduces the risk of accidents occurring in the first place.

What if I am driving slowly?

Most fatal car accidents occur when the speed is less than 40 mph. Going slowly is not a protection against injuries, but wearing a seat belt is. Seat belt injuries are the trade-off for being able to survive a car accident, but they are still injuries that require appropriate medical care from trained professionals. The providers at AICA College Park can assess you following an accident and get you back on the road to recovery, so contact the professionals today to schedule your appointment.


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