About 1,000 fetuses die every year in the United States when their mothers are injured in car crashes. But little was known about how automotive restraints might be improved for pregnant women until
Stefan Duma created the first computer model of a pregnant abdomen. Duma, director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Injury Biomechanics, has also produced important models of the human eye and thorax. And he developed a sensor-rigged football helmet that has been commercialized to help doctors understand impacts to the head.
TR: We’ve all seen those iconic crash-test dummies. What’s wrong with them?
Duma: We’ve come a long way using these dummies, but they are not 100 percent humanlike. They only measure discrete locations where sensors are located. They are fairly rigid compared to a human. In a computer model, we can make them more flexible, and we can have an infinite number of sensors.
How did you create your model of a pregnant abdomen?
When my wife was pregnant, I realized there was little research in this area, so I got into it. We created the model using data from sources like studies of placenta strength and validated it by studying the involved pregnant women. With this computer model, we can now “see” inside the abdomen during the accident.
There’s a notion that lap belts might harm rather than protect pregnant women. What does your model show?
We’ve shown that the three-point belt is far superior to just a shoulder belt. But we’re hoping to help make devices to better protect pregnant women. We’ve been better able to show the injuries they are susceptible to. We’ve transferred this model so that it is commercially available, and we are working with [vehicle] manufacturers on prototype pregnant belt systems.
How do these prototypes differ from existing seat belts and air bags?
There are a lot of things you can do. You could have different attachment points, different sizes, different materials construction for seat belts, for example. And we’ve found that the steering wheel is a key issue. That’s where a lot of the fetal deaths happen.