The Injuries Caused to Pregnant Women from Car Crashes and the Seat Belt Design
Car crashes are the biggest culprit to injuries caused to pregnant women.
Not surprisingly, pregnant women take great measures to make sure they take care of their unborn child. Some women become almost obsessive about eating right, exercising, getting proper sleep and avoiding harsh environments such as a smoking area. Yet they still climb into the car and drive, an activity that puts them and their unborn baby at the greatest risk for fatal injuries.
We’re not suggesting they stay home bound throughout their pregnancy. We are only suggesting they take precautions just like they do in every other area of their lives to protect their baby.
Studies have shown that only 27% of healthcare providers even discuss driving during pregnancy with their pregnant patients. The question is are the healthcare providers even fully aware of the dangers much less possible solutions?
We’ve read many reports and studies about driving while pregnant. An average estimate from all the studies we’ve read are that about 3,000 pregnancies are lost every year from car crashes. That’s an astounding number. Additional uncounted adverse fetal outcomes occur as well, as many children grow up disabled as a result of injuries sustained in utero (Klinich, 1998).
For those mothers-to-be who are exceedingly cautious when driving, it is important to remember that even a relatively insignificant traffic collision can result in severe trauma to an unborn child. This is why it’s absurd to us that the topic is so rarely discussed.
Just what are the possible adverse results of and injuries caused to pregnant women from car crashes?
One condition that can result from a minor collision is known as “contra coup injury.”
The most common and most life-threatening injury caused to pregnant women during a car crash is placenta abruption. Placenta abruption can cause the placenta to be prematurely detached from the uterine wall, which cuts off blood flow to the placenta. That’s a delicate attachment, and it doesn’t take a lot of force to detach the placenta. This is, obviously, a critical medical condition that can be fatal not only to the baby but also place the mother’s health in serious and potentially life-threatening danger. Internal bleeding, severe abdominal pain and dizziness can result from a case of placental abruption.
In general trauma to the fetus can be accompanied by:
- severe abdominal pain,
- urgent or painful urination,
- excessive vaginal bleeding,
- dizziness loss of consciousness,
- swelling of the mother’s face or fingers,
- chills or fever,
- severe headache,
- a change in the baby’s movement.
It is important to remember however, outward symptoms are not always evident. For instance, the wife of the creator of the Tummy Shield was in a low speed sudden stop incident — not even a crash — which left a bruise on her belly from the seat belt and no other symptoms of injury. However, months later their child was born with a head injury. The sudden stop was the only traumatic event they could link the injury to. (You can read more details here.)
Even if a fetus survives, complications arising from early emergency delivery of a premature fetus (such as low birth weight and neonatal respiratory distress syndrome) can lead to long-term negative consequences for the child.
In the event of a crash, a previously low-risk pregnancy can become high-risk and the mother-to-be will have to take even more precautions.
What is about cars and pregnant women?
The anatomy of pregnant women while seated in automotive posture poses a unique challenge to restraint designers because of difficulty positioning the lap belt and close proximity to the steering wheel and airbag module (Klinich, 1998).
Stefan Duma, Virginia Tech’s head of biomechanical engineering and driving while pregnant researcher, said the biggest problem is the steering wheel. The larger the belly, the closer the steering wheel, and the steering wheel hits the abdomen. But knowing crash dynamics, we question whether women’s pregnancies aren’t first struck by the seat belt locking and engaging the hip bones by compressing into the pregnancy. It is the seat belt that is designed to keep people in their seat and from hitting the steering wheel.
In a USA Today article, Steve Rouhana, senior technical leader for safety in Ford’s passive safety research and advanced engineering department (he retired from this position in Dec. 2015), said, “the seat belt is the best safety device in the vehicle today, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make it better.” He also said pregnant women should continue using seat belts until answers are found.
While many pregnant women are scared (or just find them too uncomfortable) to use seat belts late in their pregnancies, not doing so can lead to even greater injury.
While there have been many studies by universities and even car manufacturers have been involved there has been no great improvement or design changes to address the safety issue. Why? The primary reason could be that it is at any given time a low demographic of people affected in comparison to the whole number of people driving. Plus the crash and injury data regarding pregnant women and unborn children is drastically underreported — we talked about that here — thus the issue hasn’t been deemed a major concern by the auto industry.
So what can be done about this?
Ideally, pregnant women would reduce their driving/riding in the car during pregnancy. Since that is not a very realistic solution for most pregnant women. You can follow our tips for safer driving while pregnant found here.
One article on the web about the subject states, “I wish there was some new, groundbreaking safety device I could tell you about, but this issue is largely overlooked and until the spotlight gets placed on the safety of pregnant women behind the wheel of a car, unborn babies (and the soon-to-be-mother drivers) will continue to be put at risk for a serious injury.” There is such a device that has been crash tested and is now available in the U.S., the Tummy Shield. Tummy Shield may reduce the number of pregnancies lost and serious injuries during a crash.
What are your thoughts? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
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