A typical day for PhD student and biomedical engineer Ben Beck might look a little like an episode of CSI.
“We might go out to a Sydney suburb, or a small country road somewhere. We’ll have a crushed car, the location where the crash took place, and a list of injuries that the occupant sustained,” he says.
“Sometimes you look at a car and it clicks straight away – you can see exactly how this person got their injuries. But other times you're out there for a while, going through in minute detail, looking for bits of evidence.
“It's like a crime scene, trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle.”
The puzzle Ben is referring to is how people travelling in the rear seats of cars are injured in accidents.
“It may sound surprising, but we don’t know much about how people are injured in the rear seat,” says Ben.
“There’s been a lot of research into protecting front seat occupants, and now we have air bags and other technologies in the front seats of cars, but we still don’t have performance requirements in Australia on safety for the rear seat,” says Ben.
In NSW, 12% of car accident deaths are of people travelling in the rear seat. But only 8-9% of all journeys are made seated in the rear of the car.
“This says to me that the rear seat isn’t as safe as it could be,” says Ben.
But this is set to change. Ben, along with his supervisor Prof Lynne Bilston and Dr Julie Brown, are part of a NSW-wide crash investigation to determine how to reduce the number of rear seat fatalities.
The team is recruiting 90 people with crash injuries sustained in the rear seat. They receive their medical records and a testimony, then go to work examining the car and the crash scene to find out what happened.
“We look at the kind of restraints in the car and what safety technologies were available to the occupant. We also look at the crush pattern of the car to work out the direction and speed of the impact,” he says.
“Our focus is on injuries. We look at the pattern of loading marks on the seat belt and buckle to find out whether the passenger was wearing their belt properly. We search for head impacts on the back of the front seat by looking for skin and blood splatters.”
It might sound confronting, but Ben says the key is to focus on being meticulous in gathering detail. One of his most intriguing and difficult cases so far, he says, was working out how a young girl sustained injuries to her lower spine.
"The vehicle was travelling along a local road at night when the driver braked, lost control and veered off the side of the road. The vehicle then proceeded to hit a tree."
The girl sitting in the back seat had unusual injuries to her spine. The team had to figure out whether this was a case of ‘submarining’, where the passenger slips out from under the belt, or whether the girl was misusing her belt.
"What we found from the pattern of her injuries, and from the atypical loading marks on the belt, was that the girl had the sash part of the seat belt behind her back. This meant that during the force of the accident, all the flexion in her back came through the lumbar spine," he says.
Ben says information from cases like this will guide them in selecting counter-measures – such as a shallower rear seat to help children sit with the belt in the correct position, and new seat belt designs that sit over the top of the thigh instead of the pelvis – that they will then test in the crash lab at NeuRA.
“We’ll be using crash test dummies to see whether these measures prevent ‘submarining’ and other types of injuries that we record,” he says.
One of the best things about this type of research, says Ben, is that it’s immediately applicable.
“We’re working with policy makers and the RTA and I don’t think it will be long before we see some significant improvements in rear seat safety,” he says.
“We've gone through some significant advancements in car safety since the 1970s and we've seen large reductions in fatalities on our roads. But the rear seat is still where we can make a difference.”
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