ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Earnhardt died when his head whipped violently forward in the seconds after his car hit a wall going 150 mph at the Daytona 500, an independent medical expert has concluded.
Earnhardt didn't die from striking his head on a steering wheel because of a malfunctioning seat belt, as NASCAR officials have suggested, Dr. Barry Myers said in a report released to the Orlando Sentinel on Monday.
"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."
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 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 five NASCAR drivers in the past 11 months.
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