THURSDAY, Feb. 5, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly 13 percent of people in car crashes suffer spine injuries that could lead to paralysis or death, but greater use of seat belts and airbags could greatly reduce that percentage, a new study finds.
"Wearing a seat belt is a simple intervention that people could do that would protect against potentially devastating injury," said lead researcher Dr. Marjorie C. Wang, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"It is extremely important to come to grips with the carnage on the highways," said Dr. Charles H. Tator, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.
"If we lost 1/100th of these people to meningitis, there would be a national outcry, but because it's just another crash and a few more deaths we don't get serious about it," he added.
In 2007 alone, more than 41,000 people in the United States died and almost 2.5 million were injured in more than 6 million car crashes.
And car crashes are the leading cause of spinal cord injury in the United States for those 65 and younger. Spine fractures are a significant cause of disability and death, the researchers said.
"Incidence of spine fractures increased year by year over the study period from 1994 to 2002," Wang said.
For the study, Wang's team collected data on 20,276 Wisconsin drivers and front seat passengers involved in car accidents from 1994 to 2002. There were 2,530 spine fractures, with as many as 10 percent of the people suffering breaks in two places on their spine. Sixty-four of the injured patients died in a hospital.
Only 14 percent of drivers and front seat passengers were protected by both seat belts and airbags. Thirty-eight percent of the crash victims weren't wearing a seat belt.
The number of seat belts and airbags did increase from 1994 to 2002, and the combination of seat belts and airbags did decrease the risk of spine fractures, including severe fractures, Wang said.
Wang assumes that the problem in the same throughout the United States, not only in Wisconsin. More efforts are needed to get people to use seat belts, she said.
Tator said excess speed is one of the biggest contributing factors to car crashes. "Seat belts and airbags do a marvelous job," he said, "but I think speed is an enormous factor."
His suggestion: Speed limits should be reduced. "A 75 mph speed limit is too high. It's higher than the brain can think... I think our brains can process information reasonably well at about 50 mph -- at 60 you are stretching it. You cannot react fast enough," he said.
High speeds are also too fast for people's bodies to tolerate, Tator said. "Speed kills and fractures," he stressed.
For more on spine injury, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.