The Grab Bar – The “Seat Belt” of the Future?

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. December 12, 2016

The Grab Bar – The “Seat Belt” of the Future?


In 1964, all new passenger cars had some form of seat belt. By 1968, all cars had shoulder belts, followed by integrated lap and shoulder belts as the norm in 1974[1]. Most drivers and passengers refused to wear the belts at first. In the 1970s, I remember pushing the belts down between the seat and the seat back to get them out of the way. Frankly, I thought of them as a nuisance. I am grateful for them now and wear them every time I travel in a car.

After many years of collaboration between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the insurance industry, seat belt use is mandated in 49 US states and is widely accepted as a lifesaving and injury-reducing practice.

So, we were thinking – if our nation’s leaders and policymakers are interested in helping reduce the risk of injuries and fatalities (like they were with seat belts and more recently air bags), why haven’t our leaders become more assertive in alerting the public about falls - the leading cause of deaths and injuries that impacts our senior citizens the most?

Falls are a much greater cause of unintentional injury deaths than automobile accidents:

  • More than one-half (55%) of unintentional injury deaths among adults aged 65 and over are due to falls, resulting in 25,000 deaths per year
  • By comparison, only 14% of unintentional injury deaths among older adults are caused by motor vehicle traffic crashes, resulting in 6,000 deaths per year.

With the preponderance of fall-related injuries – especially for our increasing population of older adults – where is the sense of urgency or a call to action regarding fall prevention?

Per the National Center for Health Statistics, “Many public health initiatives are directed toward preventing injury deaths among the older population.”[2] The NCHS cites that Healthy People 2020 has identified the following objective for fall deaths among the population aged 65 and over:

  • IVP-23.2 Prevent an increase in fall-related deaths among adults aged 65 years and older

Although Healthy People 2020 is a far-reaching and well-intentioned collaboration, it may be too broad to seriously impact the fall crisis that affects one-third of our senior population each year. The Healthy People 2020 initiative is challenged to track over 40 broad topic areas. Each area (such as one called “older adults”) has 10-12 objectives and multiple sub-objectives. Of its 400-500 objectives, Healthy People has only one related to fall prevention in older adults.

Healthy People 2020 cites three government funded initiatives that address preventing falls-related injuries and deaths by:

  • Evidence-based falls prevention programs that are implemented in community settings through aging services and other community providers (The Administration for Community Living).
  • Stopping Elderly Accidents, Deaths, & Injuries (STEADI) tools and educational materials that assist health care providers in reducing their patients’ risk of falling (Center for Disease Control and Prevention).
  • Testing evidence-based interventions that deploy nurses or nurse practitioners as “falls care managers” (The National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI))

A Not-So-Bright Outlook

These kinds of programs are informative and well-intentioned. Yet, the message that one out of three senior citizens fall and die each year seems to get lost in the noise of other more tantalizing health issues. Getting hurt from a fall is simply not that glamorous. Yet it impacts over two and half million older adults each year and results in over $34 billion in direct medical costs.

We wonder how many Americans know about the fall crisis? How many know that one out of three seniors fall every year? One out of four of those injured will die within a year of the fall? And half will never return to their pre-fall level of mobility? If fall prevention is simply one of 400-500 objectives pertaining to the improvement of Americans’ health, it will continue to be perceived as a low priority left to the individual to sort out on his or her own.

In the 1970s, State Farm became a leading advocate for seat belts. Perhaps another group (American Association of Retired Persons or a medical insurance company such as Blue Cross) will tackle the issue of senior injuries and deaths due to falls with a serious amount of attention and resources.

What Can You Do?

In the meantime, Safety In Place will continue to spread the word about fall prevention techniques and provide advice on ways that individuals can take charge of fall prevention in their home. It is not practical (or necessary anymore) for a car owner to install a seat belt in an automobile. However, it is practical and necessary for you to equip your home with fall prevention devices. Frankly, it is your home and no one else is going to make you install a fall prevention device. Our government mandates the installation of grab bars in public places, but Uncle Sam will not and should not tell you that you must install a grab bar in your bathroom at home.

If you are ready to make fall prevention a priority in your home, our suggestion is to start with grab bars. We offer many ideas on where to place grab bars and how to choose and install them. See these blogs:

-Why Use Grab Bars?

-Where to Use Grab Bars?

-Common Problems To Avoid When Installing Grab Bars

Will the grab bar become the seat belt of the home in the future? It appears that this will only happen if you decide to take the proper steps to install grab bars and other fall prevention devices on your own. While it took over 20 years for the seat belt to become an accepted safety device in the automobile, we hope that it takes much less time for our aging population to adopt the grab bar as an essential way to make homes safer.


[1] Primary Enforcement of Seat Belt Laws. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last updated Dec. 2, 2015.

[2] Kramarow E, Chen LH, Hedegaard H, Warner M. Deaths from unintentional injury among adults aged 65 and over: United States, 2000–2013. NCHS data brief, no 199. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2015.


    Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
    Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.


    Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.

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