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Passengers as Missiles

Unbelted riders increase others' risk of death from car crashes


Putting on a seatbelt in a car might not be enough to prevent a fatal injury in a crash. Other people not wearing their seatbelts may be catapulted about the vehicle, injuring those around them, according to a safety study. Vehicle occupants wearing seatbelts can be killed after being struck by unbelted occupants who are thrown forwards, backwards, or sideways after impact in a crash, researchers from the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center found.

Dr. Peter Cummings, professor of epidemiology, and Dr. Frederick Rivara, professor of pediatrics, examined data from crash incidents between 1988 and 2000. The study included more than 70,000 vehicles.

Researchers found that a belted occupant riding in front of an unbelted passenger had a 20 percent greater risk of death than someone riding in front of a restrained passenger. A passenger in the rear seat had a 22 percent greater risk of death if someone in front wasn't buckled up.

"Prior studies have shown that wearing a seat belt decreases the risk of fatal injury by about 60 percent," said Cummings. "Our research shows that if you're a driver or passenger, your chance of dying is reduced if all the people in the car are wearing seat belts. In some crashes, an occupant can become a missile that can strike and kill another person in the same car."

The study, which looked at data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration , was funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network of the Traffice Safety Administration. The findings were published in the Jan. 21, 2004, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.