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Seat Belt Not Sole Culprit / Study: Death of Dale had many causes

Atlanta - A combination of factors led to the death of Dale Earnhardt in a

crash at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, according to results of a six-month NASCAR

investigation released yesterday.

The seven-time Winston Cup champion died from a blow to his head when his

No. 3 car struck a wall at nearly 160 mph during the final lap. The two-volume

report, compiled by two NASCAR experts, revealed that the breaking of a left

lap belt found in the wreckage was among the causes of death, but not the only


"Dale Earnhardt died as a result of several factors coming together at

precisely the wrong moment," the report said. "The location of the accident

[the turn], the unavoidable collision with car No. 36 [driven by Ken Schrader],

the pre-positioning of the head that was caused by that collision, the

severity of the wall impact caused by the angle and velocity of the car into

the wall, the separation of the seat belt, and the rotation of the helmet

forward on the head."

James H. Raddin Jr., M.D., director of a San Antonio-based biodynamics

research corporation, and Dean L. Sicking, Ph.D, a professor of civil

engineering at the University of Nebraska, led a 54-person team in an

investigation that a NASCAR official estimated cost "well into the seven


Speculation had been rampant that a faulty lap belt was the main cause of

death. With the use of crash-test dummies, computer models and further

investigation of the crash site, the report came to two conclusions.

"First, Dale Earnhardt was committed to safety," the report said. "He chose

to install his [safety belt] restraint system in a manner that he believed

would be the most beneficial to him. His system had served him well over many

years in many types of accidents, some of them quite severe.

"Second, the seat belt separation cannot be isolated as the sole cause of

Dale Earnhardt's death. While the separation of the lap belt increased the

potential for serious injury, the precise timing of the separation during the

impact is unknown. It is impossible to determine with certainty whether Dale

Earnhardt would or would not have survived if the lap belt had remained intact."

Although NASCAR president Mike Helton said the racing circuit would not

institute any "quick fixes" to address safety issues, it announced a few

changes that may occur during the next two years:

The placing in cars of data boxes, similar to black boxes on airplanes that

record important data during accidents.

The recommendation of head-and-neck restraints to be used by drivers.

A medical liaison to coordinate efforts of doctors at different racetracks

throughout the country.

A study into seat belt restraints and head-and-neck restraints.

Teresa Earnhardt, the driver's widow, called the findings of the

investigation "the most comprehensive information available."

"We thank NASCAR for its good-faith effort to make the facts known, and

look forward to hearing future recommendations," she said in a statement.

Helton said the upcoming changes showed NASCAR's commitment to safety.

"Nothing we can do can bring back those that we've lost as part of our sport,"

Helton said. "We can, however, learn from those losses and honor them in what

we do moving forward."

Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR drivers have increased their use of

head-and-neck restraints (Earnhardt was not wearing one when he died).

At Sunday's Pepsi 400 Winston Cup race in Brooklyn, Mich., Earnhardt's son,

Dale Earnhardt Jr., wore a head-and-neck restraint for the first time after

pleas from drivers Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte. Earnhardt Jr.

had resisted wearing the device because he said it was uncomfortable.

"It's something my fellow drivers asked me to wear," Earnhardt Jr. said

after finishing 12th Sunday. "And I think when guys like that speak up, it's

something you ought to take notice to."

Earnhardt Jr. wore the "Hutchens device," the head-and-neck restraint

designed by Bobby Hutchens, an engineer at Richard Childress Racing, the former

team of the elder Earnhardt.

It's one of two head-and-neck restraint systems being used by NASCAR

drivers, the other being the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, which is worn

by Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

The HANS has a large neck brace; the Hutchens relies more on straps on

different parts of the body. Only two of the 43 drivers at the Pepsi 400 did

not wear head-and-neck restraint devices (Tony Stewart and Jimmy Spencer).

NASCAR has stopped short of mandating restraints.

"Right now we don't feel comfortable in mandating a head-and-neck restraint

system," George Pyne, senior vice president of NASCAR, said. "Each guy has

strong opinions about the way he straps in. One driver is 6-foot-5, one is

5-foot-5. The guy that goes in the cockpit has to make that decision."

NASCAR's Findings

A look at NASCAR's six-month study into the Feb. 18 fatal crash of seven-time

Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500:

Cause of Death

A broken seat belt, the collision with Ken Schrader's car and smashing into the

outside wall at 157-160 mph all contributed to Earnhardt's death from basilar

skull fracture.

Steps NASCAR Is Taking

Next season, it will install "black boxes" in cars, similar to flight-data

recorders on airplanes, to help understand the impact of crashes and improve


Computer models to design safer cars will be used, along with testing of

improvements for restraint systems and racetrack barriers.

NASCAR plans to open a research center in Conover, N.C., sometime next year.

A full-time medical liaison will come on board in 2002 to coordinate with local

tracks and medical personnel.

What's Not Happening

NASCAR will not require the use of head-and-neck restraints, although it

encourages their use.

The report contains no recommendations on changes to cars or barriers at




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