Expert: Earnhardt died of head whip, not seat belt failure

Tuesday, April 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ Race driver Dale Earnhardt died because his head whipped violently forward during a crash at the Daytona 500 and not as a result of a faulty seat belt, an independent medical expert has concluded.

In a report released to the Orlando Sentinel on Monday, Dr. Barry Myers concluded that ``the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury.''

Myers, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, reached his conclusion after reviewing autopsy images of Earnhardt two weeks ago.

Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, reached a compromise with the Sentinel to permanently seal the photos after an independent medical expert viewed them and wrote a report.

Myers was asked to evaluate whether Earnhardt's skull fracture resulted from his head whipping forward, a blow on the top of the head, or, as NASCAR had suggested, a broken seat belt.

Speedway physician Steve Bohannon, one of the emergency-room doctors who worked on Earnhardt after the crash, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt's head to strike the steering wheel of his Chevrolet.

In his findings, Myers sided with other racing and medical experts who told the Sentinel that Earnhardt likely died because his head and neck were not held securely in place.

Earnhardt suffered eight broken ribs, a broken breastbone and abrasions over the left hip and left lower abdomen, indications that the seat belt functioned properly through much of the crash, holding back Earnhardt's body, Myers concluded.

What killed Earnhardt on Feb. 18, Myers said, was the weight of his unrestrained head whipping forward beyond the ability of his neck muscles to keep it from snapping away the base of the skull.

Myers stopped short of saying that better head-and-neck protection would have saved Earnhardt. But he said such a device had the potential to prevent these injuries, which have claimed the lives of as many as five NASCAR drivers in the past 11 months.