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Are You Keeping Your Unborn Baby Safe in the Car?

By Greg Durocher

You are pregnant and from the very beginning, even before conception, you’ve been thinking about your baby’s needs. You are eating the right foods. You are getting exercise. You are keeping your stress as low as possible. You are doing everything right. Or are you?

But did you know there are an estimated 3,000 pregnancies lost every year because of car crashes? That is 3,000 expecting moms who never get to hold their baby in their arms.

Most people believe that a seat belt is as safe for a pregnant woman as it is for a non-pregnant woman. The truth is, experts admit seat belts are not designed for pregnant women. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says the fetus can be injured from “crash forces concentrated in the area the seat belt crosses the abdomen.”

Of course there are many factors in play during a crash especially with a pregnant woman. The speed of the crash is probably the biggest factor. Even in a low-speed minor crash, injuries can occur that affect the pregnancy. With expecting moms there are additional distractions involved in driving such as exhaustion and nausea. The airbag and seat belt play a part in both safety, and along with the steering wheel, potential injuries.

Crickett Holmes, an expecting mom from Durango, Colorado, recently wrote to us about the minor crash she experienced at 6 months pregnant. She described her low-speed crash when she hit a snowplow that unexpectedly started making a U-turn in front of her. She said, “I didn’t sustain any major injuries and all my minor injuries were caused by the safety features in my car. I had chemical burns on my hands and bruises on both arms where the airbags came out, I also had pain in my chest and face from the airbags. The seat belt also gave me bruises across my chest and on the bottom of my belly where I was told to wear the belt during pregnancy. Because of the seat belt the doctors were worried about placental abruption or internal bleeding. I spent the evening in the hospital and the baby was monitored for 13 hours. Thankfully, everything was fine. It’s amazing what our bodies can handle.”

A study by the University of Michigan estimates that about 170,000 car crashes in the U.S. each year involve pregnant women. On average, 2.9% of women report being hurt in a “car accident” during pregnancy. If you do the math, based on an average of 4 million babies born a year, 116,000 crashes occur where a mom-to-be is injured, at least somewhat.

The risk of adverse fetal injuries, such as placental abruption, uterine rupture, direct fetal injury, maternal death or fetal loss, in a low speed 16 MPH frontal crash at 28 weeks gestation is 26% for belted drivers and 70% for unbelted drivers.

What if we could lower the numbers?

According to former Director of the Office of Crashworthiness at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Jim Hofferberth, it was known some 50 years ago that seat belts were not an optimal design for keeping pregnant women and their babies safe. The design worked for most of the rest of the population, and at that time pregnant women just weren’t in the car that much. However, the total annual miles driven by women of reproductive age increased 275% from 1969 to 1990. This represents a major increase in fetal exposure to crash risks over 30 years and has likely increased more since then.

Although pregnant women’s exposure to motor vehicle crashes has increased, the public health message has lagged behind. Professor Hank Weiss, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, who has been studying the risks posed to pregnant women and fetuses by motor vehicle trauma for more than 20 years, doesn’t anticipate that we’ll be seeing warning labels about driving while pregnant on cars anytime soon.

“It’s more effective if it comes from a health care provider,” Weiss said in one report. “It should involve clinicians and direct counseling. It should be on the list of things that women are told to think about.”

But it’s not. Obstetricians have a lot to cover during a pregnancy and often they have been told seat belts are effective at protecting pregnant women, if the women follow NHTSA’s recommendations for seat belt positioning during pregnancy. And it is effective—using a seat belt during pregnancy is three times safer than not using one at all. But accounting for all the pregnancies still being lost, just using the seat belt is not effective enough, and when the seat belt is so uncomfortable across the low belly that pregnant women don’t even wear it, it’s not effective at all.

There must be a better way

It’s unlikely you can really stay home from now until you are rushed to the hospital. Here are some tips to staying safer in the car when you are driving while pregnant and protect that little one growing in your belly:

  • Gauge how you feel. If you are feeling fatigued, nauseated or otherwise out of sorts, eat a snack, drink some water or take a rest. Wait to drive until you feel you can have more focus.
  • Be a passenger. When possible, don’t drive, especially as your pregnancy progresses and your uterus gets closer and closer to the steering wheel.
  • If you are driving:
    • Cut down on distractions. Put your phone away and be extra cautious in inclement weather or on busy roads.
    • Position yourself far back from the steering wheel. Move your seat as far back as is comfortable. Try to position yourself so that your breastbone is at least 10 inches from the steering wheel.
    • Tilt the steering wheel toward your breastbone rather than toward your abdomen to position the airbag so it does not deploy into the abdomen.
    • Remove extra layers. Coats and jackets could interfere with the placement of the seat belt.
    • Buckle up correctly. NHTSA recommends that pregnant women wear their safety belt with the lap portion placed under the abdomen and across the upper thighs, as low as possible on the hips and the shoulder strap runs across your chest between the breasts.
    • If you use a seat belt positioning device make sure it has been well designed and crash
      The Tummy Shield makes driving comfortable and safe again for pregnant moms.

      Photo Courtesy of Aime Durocher

      tested. There is one device called the Tummy Shield that is highly engineered and crash tested which redirects the lap portion of the seat belt away from the abdomen, creating leg harness, much like a race car driver’s seat belt. Crash testing shows the Tummy Shield restrains the woman just as well as the seat belt while protecting the abdomen from possible injury, avoiding the seat belt going across the belly.



Greg Durocher Bio Photo CroppedGreg Durocher has been a certified CPS Technician Instructor since 2002. Prior to becoming CEO at Safe Ride 4 Kids, he was a career firefighter and paramedic for 13 years. He is the father of three children and lives in Denver.

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