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The Belt That Saves Lives

By Gesel Pereyra-Mangilit

Six-year-old John-John is in the car with his mom Linda, who is 39 weeks pregnant, to get some groceries at a nearby mall. Traveling at a mere 30 kph an hour, the car collides with a vehicle backing up just over the mall driveway. From the backseat, John-John, not having worn his seatbelt, hurtles forward and gets thrown every which way, hitting the interior of the car like rag doll, while Linda, not having belted correctly, is thrown forward and back with such force that the lap belt riding on her tummy becomes a vice-like grip, literally strangling her yet unborn child, causing the placenta to become partially or completely detached from the wall of the uterus, preventing the fetus from getting enough oxygen.

Such an unfortunate tragedy could have been prevented by two important things: by John-John having worn his seatbelt and by Linda having belted correctly. Fortunately, though, John-John and Linda are just crash test dummies, specifically made by Volvo crash test engineers to help us understand just what happens in the event of a collision.

"At 70 kph, John-John, who weighs 22 kilos, would have flown through the windshield, causing instant death. In the rapid deceleration that occurs at the moment of impact, a child's 'crash weight' increases dramatically such that an unbelted child will be hurled forward with a force that multiplies approximately 45 times above normal. At the event of the collision, John's crash weight would be at an astounding 1,500 kilos," explains John-Fredrik Gronvall, Volvo senior research engineer, to a roomful of media representatives, who fell silent as a re-enactment was being played on video at the recently held Child Safety Seminar held at the Volvo Showroom in Makati.

The seminar was held to brief Filipino media representatives and parents on the latest knowledge and concepts about vehicle safety and to boost safety awareness among Filipino drivers. Crash analysis engineer Birgitta Trommler, mother of two, adds, "Car crashes are the no. 1 cause of injury death for the unborn child, while crash injuries is the leading cause of death among five to 12 year olds."

According to the US National Safe Kids Campaign, 75 percent of all crashes occur within 25 miles of home, taking place on roads with maximum speed limits of 40 mph or less. In 1998, 1,765 children age 14 and below were killed as riding passengers in motor vehicle accidents with one in three injury deaths among children. Among the reasons cited for not belting up is that children are too fractious and that making them stay in the seat long enough to fasten the seatbelt is next to impossible or that the journey is not that long anyway or, that parents won't be driving fast.

"But then if we teach our children that not wearing a seatbelt is a non-negotiable thing, the practice of wearing the seatbelt will later on become ingrained in the child. Even my kids remind me to belt up even before I turn on the ignition," says Gronvall.

Here in the Philippines, the use of the seatbelt by rear passengers, even by adult passengers, is close to nil. Heck, even with the seatbelt law and all, compliance is still a problem with the Filipino riding public. But then there are other practices that we should really consider changing, in the light of what our Volvo safety engineers are telling us, like, our habit of letting kids sit on our laps when we ride on the front seat. Also, how many times have we seen moms cradling their newborns while riding at the front seat? Some even let their kids stretch out or sleep at the back unbelted on long out-of-town trips at highway speeds, with only an adult, who is also unbelted, holding them. As they say, you can never be too careful nor careless when with a child. "The best way to protect our kids is to always keep them restrained, no matter what, and know how to to it properly," adds Trommler.

According to Gronvall, a standard seatbelt provides 60 percent better protection than no restraint at all. More importantly, children should be given the most suitable type of protection for their particular age and height. "Children from below the age of four should travel in rearward facing seat, while children below the age of 12, weighing between 20 to 40 lbs., should use forward-facing child seat or a booster cushion. We should never take for granted the booster cushion because its use can help the child achieve the right belt geometry," he adds. Using a booster cushion provides 80 percent better protection; the rearward facing child seat is 90 percent better. Why so?

According to a research conducted in Sweden by the insurance company Folksam, the risk of children being killed and seriously injured is five times greater in forward-facing seats than in rearward facing ones. The idea, in fact, for the rearward facing child seat was also a Swedish one. Professor Aldman of Chalmers Univeristy in Gothenberg took his inspiration from the seats of the Gemini mission astronauts used for take off and landing, specially molded to distribute the forces over the whole back. The principle behind rearward facing child seats in exactly the same. In the event of a collision, the whole of the child's back takes the strain of the impact, not the very vulnerable and underdeveloped neck.

Young children should continue to use the rear-facing seats for as long as possible, switching only to forward facing seat when the child reaches the weight limit for the seat type, or when the head extends beyond the top of the seat. Volvo has developed childseats that have passed international safety standards. The latest innovation is the Isofix, which simplifies the attachment of the childseat in the car, developed by Trommler in 1998. She adds that there are a lot childseats available in the market and in buying one, the important thing to remember is to make sure that it complies with international safety standards, that it must be the right type for your car and that all the fittings and installation instructions are followed.

Gronvall then takes John John and demonstrates how the correct seatbelt position should look. He says the most strongest part of our anatomy, the breastbone and the pevlic bone, should come in contact with the belt. "There are lots of kinds of seatbelts, but the standard one is the three-point sealbelt used by all car manufacturers. The diagonal belt needs to go over the shoulder and across the chest or the breastbome with a minimum of slack. It doesn't matter if the belt comes close to the child's neck. It won't strangle the child. If the car were to move abruptly, the child's heads would move forward with the belt and the belt would move further onto the shoulder," he says.

The risk, he adds, is much greater if the diagonal belt is worn too close to the edge of the shoulder because in a crash it could slip downwards and the child could be thrown over the top of it. "The lap belt, on the other hand, should be worn across the hips, above the tops of the thighs," he demonstrates. Without a bolster seat, the lap belt could slide up onto the child's stomach and injure the soft tissues in the event of a crash. This is also true for pregnant women, to avoid fetal injury or death. Another important thing to remember is to never put the child seat if there's a passenger airbag. If the airbag were to inflate, the child could be seriously injured, even killed. The alternative is to have the passenger airbag disabled.

All parents want to do everything in their power to keep their children safe, in the home and outside of it. Though they always have their children's best intentions at heart, it is still important that they know how to do it. "Knowledge saves lives. We, at Volvo, believe in the guiding principle behind everything we do - safety," Gronvall concludes.

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