FRIDAY, July 30, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- To prevent serious brain injury in a broadside crash, cars need to have side air bags that protect occupants' heads, a new study concludes.

An analysis of car crashes reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found broadside crashes cause more brain injuries than other accidents, according to the report in the August issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"The point of our study was to show that the sides of cars are unprotected," said lead author Dr. Jeffrey Bazarian, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Rochester Department of Community and Preventive Medicine.

"Manufacturers have done a really good job of protecting the front and the rear of the car, but the sides are naked," he said. "If you can make the side of the car as safe as the front, you could prevent a lot of deaths and injuries."

In their study, Bazarian's team found that if you are the occupant of a car that gets hit on the side, you are three times more likely to suffer a head injury than if your car gets hit in the front or the back.

"Not only are you more likely to get a head injury, but the head injury you get will be more severe than if your car got hit in the front or the back," he said.

According to the report, traumatic brain injury results in death in 51 percent to 74 percent of single-car side collisions, and in 41 percent to 64 percent of multiple car side-impact crashes.

Bazarian believes side crashes also cause more injury than other crashes because of vehicle mismatch. "You have tank-like SUVs hitting smaller cars," he said.

The best existing safety equipment available are side-impact air bags that protect the head, Bazarian said. But they are available only in some foreign cars, and then usually as an option, he added.

Also, when a manufacturer provides side-impact air bags, that doesn't mean the air bags protect your head, Bazarian said. "There are three types of side-impact air bags, and only two of them protect the head. The other one only protects your chest and pelvis," he said.

You have to make sure when you buy a car with side-impact air bags that they are the type that protects the head, Bazarian advised, adding, "I know, for me, that's what I'm getting in my car."

Bazarian added that occupants who wear an old standby safety feature -- the seat belt -- are much less likely to get a head injury regardless of where the car is hit, "so wearing a seat belt is always going to be a benefit."

"We hope that our study will help stimulate industry and government to increase protection to the sides of cars," Bazarian said.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Augenstein, a professor of surgery and director of the William Lehman Injury Research Center at the University of Miami, said the findings came as no surprise.

Side impacts are likely to cause more brain injuries because of the lack of protection the side of the car provides, he said. "Air bags that protect the head will provide a major improvement in outcome," he added.

Studies have shown that impacts to the side of the head cause more damage than forward impacts, Augenstein said. "It's the way that the brain is architected that the injures are more tolerated in the front and back than on the side," he said.

"The good news is that everybody is aware that we need to improve side-impact protection," Augenstein said. "In 2005 cars, I doubt you'll see any without side impact air bags."

More information

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has some tips on buying a safer car.

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