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Tuesday, April 10
Updated: April 12, 11:38 AM ET
Expert won't blame broken belt
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. – As NASCAR continues to look into Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident, an independent medical examiner said a broken seat belt found after the crash probably did not cause his death.

Dr. Barry Myers of Duke University studied autopsy photos of Earnhardt for the Orlando Sentinel and found that the seven-time Winston Cup champion was killed when his head whipped violently forward in the seconds after his car hit a wall going 150 mph at the Daytona 500.

"As such," Myers wrote in the four-page report, "the restraint failure does not appear to have played a role in Mr. Earnhardt's fatal injury."

NASCAR officials said five days after the Feb. 18 crash they found a broken seat belt in Earnhardt's car.

Speedway physician Steve Bohannon, one of the doctors who worked on Earnhardt after the accident, said he thought the faulty belt allowed Earnhardt's head to strike the steering wheel of his Chevrolet, a blow that cracked the base of his skull and caused massive head injuries.

NASCAR said Tuesday that Myers' report doesn't contradict anything the sanctioning body has said regarding the accident because it never claimed the broken seat belt caused Earnhardt's death.

"Since the Daytona 500, NASCAR has made clear that we will not suggest or speculate on the circumstances surrounding Dale Earnhardt's accident until our study is complete," president Mike Helton said in a statement.

"No one from NASCAR has ever suggested what may have happened in this accident other than to say in our preliminary investigation we found issues of concern involving the occupant restraint system."

On Monday, NASCAR announced it had commissioned an accident reconstruction review into Earnhardt's death but doesn't expect the results until August.

The panel is made up of several different experts in various crash reconstruction areas, including one familiar with occupant-safety restraint analysis. It will include crash model development and testing, sled and real crash tests and impact barrier testing.

The review was announced on the same day Myers presented his report to the Sentinel.

Myers, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, was chosen to prepare the report as part of an agreement between the Sentinel and Dale Earnhardt's widow, Teresa.

Mrs. Earnhardt successfully sued to have the autopsy photos sealed four days after Earnhardt died at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18. The Sentinel protested, saying it wanted its own medical expert to view the photos for an investigative series the newspaper was writing on NASCAR safety.

The two sides eventually reached a settlement that allowed Myers to view the images, which would then be sealed permanently.

Myers was asked by the Sentinel to evaluate whether Earnhardt's skull fracture resulted from his head whipping forward, a blow on the top of the head, or a broken seat belt that allowed the driver to strike his head on the steering wheel.

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, Myers concluded, 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.

The autopsy found that the underside of Earnhardt's chin struck and bent the steering wheel, a blow that could have been enough to cause a fatal skull injury. But the head whipping by itself would have killed Earnhardt, Myers said.

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 four NASCAR drivers in the past 11 months.

Helton said NASCAR would include Myers' report in its own investigation.

"We're conducting our own detailed review with a team of experts ... this latest report will not change that," Helton said. "We respect the varied theories from the medical field and welcome their input as to what likely could have occurred and we remain committed to a thorough, comprehensive review."

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