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By Jil McIntosh

Of all the injuries possible in a car crash, those to the spinal cord or brain must surely rate among the worst. One moment, everything is fine, but in a split second, you could be left paralyzed or with permanent brain damage. And what makes it even heartbreaking is that, in many if not most cases, the injury might have been avoided by something as simple as sitting properly or wearing a seatbelt.

Such catastrophic injuries are the focus of the Canadian Spinal Research Organization (CSRO), based in Richmond Hill, Ontario. On July 15, 2010, the organization will present its second annual Run, Walk, Wheel’Athon for Spinal Cure Research, held in conjunction with the Toronto Honda Indy. Prior to the race, participants will have the opportunity to walk, run or use wheelchairs along the track course to raise funds for research.

Spinal cord and brain injuries are called neurotrauma; Barry Munro, chairman of the CSRO, says that nearly half of all such injuries in Canada are the result of car crashes. “There are approximately 1,800 spinal cord injuries each year, so it’s arguably half that, or up to 1,000,” he said. “With brain injuries, there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 each year, of different degrees.” Health care costs for a quadriplegic injury could be as much as $3 million to $10 million over a lifetime, Munro said.

The most effective way to prevent such injuries is also one of the simplest, Munro said: wear a seatbelt. “If people aren’t wearing seatbelts, they’re propelled from the vehicle,” he said. “If they’re wearing the full seatbelt, the lap and shoulder belt, they normally don’t sustain these types of injuries at all. When (first responders) get there, (they find that unbelted occupants) are thrown out, or the person was in the back seat and they end up in the dash with their head through the windshield.”

Along with wearing a seatbelt, it’s also essential that all occupants be sitting correctly in the vehicle. Seatbelts don’t just keep you inside the vehicle: they also keep you in the proper position in the seat, so that other safety devices such as airbags can do their job. “Although there are cases where airbags can cause some superficial injuries such as a broken nose, the consensus is that they really contain the body from moving around the vehicle,” Munro said. “The airbag and the seatbelt contain you and let the vehicle bear the impact, and that’s important.”

The safest position in a vehicle, whether you’re in the front or rear seat, is sitting upright with both feet on the floor. Position the seatbelt so it’s over the hips and crossed over the collarbone; these bones are strong and can take the impact with the least amount of bodily injury. Don’t ever put it under your arm, which can result in the weaker rib bones taking the impact, and possibly resulting in internal injuries. If the belt cuts into your neck, adjust its position on the pillar if the vehicle has a movable point; if it doesn’t, ask a dealer that sells your brand if there are seatbelt adjusters available. No matter how long your trip, always wear your seatbelt. Even if you’re just going to the corner store, there is potential for a tragedy.

There are a lot of “don’ts” when it comes to sitting in a vehicle. Never hunker down with your feet on the dash, or in the rear seat, with your feet on the back of the front seat or on the window frame. In a crash, your thigh bones could be rammed through your pelvis. Don’t ride with a pet on your lap, especially in the front seat: the airbag will kill the animal, and can drive it into your abdomen, possibly causing internal injuries. Don’t recline the seat too far back, as you might if you intended to take a nap: in a crash, you can slide out from under the seatbelt, possibly sustaining injuries from striking the dash or being thrown from the vehicle.

Adjust the head restraint so that it is even with your ears. Head restraints are called that because they aren’t meant to be head rests: their purpose is to prevent the head from snapping back and forth in relation to the spine. While whiplash isn’t necessarily considered a spinal injury, it can be a painful and debilitating condition. If you’re shopping for a new vehicle, give consideration to a model that contains “active” front head restraints: these move forward in a collision, keeping the head and spine in as straight a line as possible, preventing the snapping motion that causes injury.

Children are also vulnerable to spinal cord injuries. Make sure that they are in an approved infant carrier, car seat or booster seat, depending on their age and size. It’s also essential that the child seat is secured properly in the vehicle. That isn’t always easy, depending on the design of the seat and the latching system in the vehicle. If you’re not sure if yours is properly secured – and sometimes it can look right, but it isn’t – try calling your local police service or automobile club to see if they hold car seat clinics or inspections.

Above all, police yourself. “The majority of the injuries are the risk-takers,” said Munro, who is a quadriplegic from a diving incident. “Young males from 19 to around 30 are most at risk, because they’re indestructible. But it could all change in a split second.”

For more information on spinal cord injuries and research, visit the CSRO‘s website. For information on the Honda Indy event, or to sign up or pledge, visit

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