In 1976 the Province of Ontario enacted legislation requiring the use of seat-belts. On a wintery April in 1979, a church-going family of six adults put on their seat-belts and set out in their Oldsmobile on Highway 2 west of Woodstock, Ontario. They became involved in a head-on crash with a Chevrolet Impala occupied by three males who were not wearing seat-belts. The result? All the six seat-belted family members were killed. The three, un-belted males survived.
When I began my work as an accident investigator with the University of Western Ontario Multi-Disciplinary Accident Research Team in the fall of 1980, I observed a filing cabinet containing previous investigations. One thick file was marked “Governors Road”. Highway 2 was known as Governors Road. As I came through discussions with team members the details of the bazaar and tragic case came forward. Even though every file was no less tragic, some were not as bazaar.
Even in the short year or so that I was working with the team it became clear that the wearing of seat-belts was a great benefit when involved in a major collision. So how could it be that six persons who were wearing their seat-belts could be killed and, in the same collision, three persons who were not wearing their seat-belts survived? It was perplexing.
What became revealed is that the family of six had a religious belief that their seat-belts would protect them. They had a religious belief that the government that legislated seat-belts must be obeyed. So they religiously put on their seat-belts over their winter coats. In those days the rear seat contained lap belts only. Similarly, the centre seating position of the front seat also contained a lap belt. Autopies revealed that the family members sustained fatal, abdominal injuries from their lap belts. And so began my education about seat-belts and blind faith.
Through the decades I came to understand what I originally understood. Seat-belts save lives. Through the decades they have saved thousands of lives in Ontario alone. But we need to understand the ferociousness with which major collisions occur and the tremendous forces that need to be dealt with in a split second. More importantly, we need to understand that the wearing of a seat-belt can kill you when you do not think about what you are doing.
Every winter Canadians put on their winter coats, jump in their motor vehicle, put on their seat-belts and rush to some important location. But they do not recognize, nor has anyone told them, how important it is to focus on the proper wearing of their seat-belts. Even the modern, three-point belt with a pre-tensioner and accompanied by a multitude of air bags may not protect you from fatal seat-belt injuries if you do not think about what you are doing.
In earlier times one might have heard the comment that one should leave a slight bit of slack in the adjusted position of the torso (shoulder) belt. Why? Because you do want your torso (chest, head) to become restrained before the legs and pelvis. Why? Because when your torso becomes restrained your lower body is not and as your lower body moves forward with respect to your upper body you “submarine” under your lap belt. In other words, the lap belt rides up onto your abdomen.
Let us be clear about the human abdomen. Looking from the front, there is nothing but soft tissue and vital organs. There is nothing but soft tissue until you reach your spine at the back of the abdomen. When major organs such as the liver, intestines, etc, receive a major force they rupture and tear. If you sustain such injuries in the rural environment you must get to an operating room in an extreme hurry and sometimes that is not possible. So you need to avoid those abdominal injuries.
Secondly, you need to understand that a lap belt was not meant to be placed on your abdomen. The lap belt was designed to be placed on the bony pelvis located just below the abdomen. So many times in my career the phrase “illiac crests” was ingrained in my head because this is where the lap belt must rest. It must rest below the crest of the bony ilium. If you place the lap belt above the bony illiac crests and you are involved in a major impact there is no engineering or medical miracle that can save you from major injury.
Thirdly, you need to understand that you cannot have slack in the lap belt, it must rest tightly against your body. Seat-belt slack will kill you. When your lap belt is slack you will submarine under your lap belt for the same reason as mentioned above, by allowing your lower body to move forward before your upper body. Modern engineering has helped with the equipping of “pre-tensioners” that will pull on the seat-belt webbing just before deceleration occurs and thus the slack is removed. But if you have misplaced your lap belt onto your abdomen beforehand, the pre-tensioner will not help you.
A critical point is that in wintertime occupants put their seat-belts over top of their heavy coats without thinking about the amount of slack that will be created. Think. When you put your seat-belt webbing over top of your heavy coat how much slack or your creating? How far is the webbing away from your body? You must unzip or unbutton your heavy coat and place it to the sides of your body and then you must pull on the webbing to bring it close to your skin, while also pushing it down so that it does not sit high onto your abdomen. This should be done every time you put on a seat-belt, even in summer conditions.
What is more important is that improper seat-belt use is more dangerous for children because children do not fit as well into the geometry of seat-belt systems made for adults. It took far too many years for booster cushions to become available and in those many years many children suffered fatal and major injuries. Even with booster cushions seat-belt placement and adjustment is crucial and parents need to understand this.
The phrase “Lest We Forget” was coined over the “war to end all wars” and Remembrance Day on November 11th in Canada is a time to reflect on the sacrifices of those millions who perished. Similarly, a vast number of motor vehicle occupants have perished. In many ways both sources of death have been needless. While it is important not to forget, we must also think about what it is that needs to be remembered. It needs to be remembered that each life is precious and it is critical to bring it to its natural, old age. Violent death of an otherwise healthy being is not natural, it is tragic, especially when it is unnecessary.