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Are seatbelts harmful in a plane crash?

Published Jul 11, 2013

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London - Doctors treating survivors of the San Francisco air crash have called for the use of seatbelts on planes to be reviewed after passengers suffered spinal injuries even though they were buckled up.

Two Chinese students died and 181 people were injured when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 from Seoul crashed during landing on Saturday.

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Dr Geoffrey Manley, neurosurgery chief at San Francisco General Hospital, said several survivors needed surgery to stabilise their spines after their upper bodies were flung forward and then backwards over their lap belts – which did keep them seated and saved their lives.

Some passengers also had ligaments so torn that they cannot hold neck and back joints in place. Dr Manley said one option to prevent this was three-point seatbelts, although he admitted that they ‘might just move the injuries up further’.

The airline industry says introducing such belts would increase fares and lessen comfort.

Experts said the survival of 305 people on board Flight 214 is a testament to the advance of airline safety.

Still, Manley said even among those who suffered mild spine trauma, he is struck by a pattern that shows how their upper bodies were flung forward and then backward over the lap belts that kept them in their seats and undoubtedly saved their lives.

The injuries are somewhat reminiscent of the days before shoulder belts in cars, although much more severe, said Dr. David Okonkwo of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who is not involved with the survivors' care.

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Does that mean shoulder belts in airplanes would prevent such injuries? Okonkwo said that's simplistic considering how much more speed and force are involved in a plane crash. Shoulder belts might just transfer that force to the neck, he cautioned.

'If you put in the shoulder belt, it might just move the injuries up further. Your head weighs a tremendous amount,' agreed Manley. He hopes to study the issue, comparing survivors' injuries to where they sat.

The airline industry says adding three-point seatbelts to airplanes would require major changes to seat design that would mean higher airfares and less comfort.

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Some business class seats have added a type of shoulder restraint, but those seats are more like beds and often don't face forward.

Meanwhile, Okonkwo said assuming the 'crash position' - leaning forward with the head as far down as possible and arms over it - can limit the spine jolting back and forth and offer some protection. It's not clear if any survivors of Saturday's crash had time to do so. - Daily Mail

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