This Automotive Technology Could Save The Life Of a Family Member From A Fatal Fall

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Airbag technology is too good for just automotive uses. Here’s a way it could help our elderly population live longer, healthier lives.

A study of hip fractures among those 65 or older in the The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) determined that of the 300,000 Americans in this age group who fracture a hip each year, as many as three out of ten will die within a year. The study also found that many more of these victims will experience “significant functional loss.” Just how bad is the disability for survivors? Two thirds won’t be able to use the toilet unassisted. Half won’t be able to rise from a chair. Anything that can help this at-risk group is welcome. One possible technology that can help are airbags like those used in automobiles.

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One pioneer in preventing hip fractures is Dr. Robert Buckman, MD. A former trauma surgeon, he started Active Protective to help design wearable safety devices that could prevent fractures.  That led to a partnership with Key Safety Systems (KSS). You may have heard of KSS. This leader in the field of automotive airbags made headlines when it acquired Takata after its disastrous bankruptcy. KKS has recently been renamed Joyson Safety Systems.  Another company with a similar product is Europe’s Helite. It has a product on sale now for about $750 U.S.

As far as the technical challenges go, this one is a piece of cake. Side airbags in automobiles are now found in every vehicle. To work properly they must deploy in about 10 milliseconds. An airbag worn around the waist has up to ten times that amount of time to detect a fall and deploy. That relatively long span of time allows engineers to avoid having to use fast-acting, and powerful pyrotechnic actuators that could cause harm. Instead, both KSS’s design and also Helite’s uses compressed gas stored in the buckle of the two-pound soft belt.

The technology seems promising, but is there really a market? With over 3 million emergency room admissions each year due to falls, and ten percent of those being hip fractures, the answer seems to be a definitive “yes.” Further strengthening the case for technological intervention is that JAMA says hip fractures cost insurers and patients $40,000 in the first year following hip fracture for direct medical costs and nearly $5000 in subsequent years.