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Surviving a Vehicle Crash

By Brent T. Wheat

Every 14 seconds, there is a traffic accident in our country that results in injury.  Every 12 minutes, someone dies in a crash.  We spend billions and billions of dollars on the problem and it’s slowly getting better, but motor vehicle accidents still remain statistically one of the biggest risks of life and limb you’ll ever face.

“Ho-hum,” you’re probably thinking.  After all, we know that car crashes cause about 25,000 deaths a year, but most of us simply view it as one of the accepted risks of modern living.

But speaking as someone who has spent years responding to automobile crashes that range from the typical fender bender to multiple fatalities, it has become apparent that the things your do before, during and after a crash have significant bearing on your well-being.

As with any potential life-threatening situation, avoidance is always preferable to proving your heroic wherewithal in the moment of crisis.  There are entire bureaucracies devoted to preventing vehicle collisions, but speaking as a veteran police officer: just slow the hell down!  This one simple action would undoubtedly save thousands of lives a year.

But since many of us are male and believe that slowing down and driving safely is tantamount to admitting we wear frilly women’s underpants, we’ll move along to the actual accident event itself.

First and foremost, use your seatbelt!  This is another no-brainer, unsexy idea, but seatbelts work as intended, keeping you inside the crush zone of your vehicle to prevent or minimize injury.  If you say you’re “afraid of getting trapped” inside a burning vehicle by a seatbelt, you’re crazy.

I’ve never seen such a thing, at least in vehicles that weren’t so smashed up that the occupant was pinned by the instrument panel or other debris.  If you’re really concerned, put a seat-belt cutter near the steering wheel in all your vehicles.  I do.

After an accident, the main goal is to avoid becoming a secondary casualty.  In the immediate aftermath of a crash, people do all kinds of untoward things such as opening their car door into passing traffic or standing in the middle of the roadway even though it’s pitch dark and there are no streetlights.

Once the vehicles stop and the dust settles, take a moment to reorient, assess your physical condition, and take stock of the environment.  Immediately after a crash, most people are feeling no pain even if seriously injure, because adrenaline floods the bloodstream and numbs the body.

The interior of the vehicle will likely be a mess.  There might be dust or smoke in the air and you might be dazed, especially if the airbag(s) has deplored and smacked you in the kisser.  At this moment, it’s important to take a second to assess yourself for injury, look for possible hazards, and then plan a safe exit from the car.

Airbags are now common and usually deploy in any medium-to-serious crash.  Aside from a stout punch to the face, they also generate a light haze of smoke and smell like something is burning inside the car.  This often results in panicked drivers who think their car is on the verge of exploding, just like in the movies.

I’ve seen such things, but they either happen immediately upon impact when the fuel tanks rupture or after five to ten minutes when damaged wiring overheats and ignites something combustible.

If your vehicle rolls onto its side, you might be uninjured but will often find the windows are still intact and prevent you from crawling out.  Kicking out the rear window is tough but often the best option, as the front window probably won’t budge.  This is why I also carry a spring-loaded window punch in my vehicles.

Should your vehicle land on its roof, you’ll often find yourself contorted into odd positions that prevent self-extrication.  Stay calm, develop a strategy, and work on freeing one limb at a time.

A vehicle landing in the water is a terrifying situation but can be survived.  The key is to open a window before the vehicle sinks too far or wait until the inside is completely filled, then open a door and swim out.  It has been shown that most electric windows continue to work underwater.

Once outside your vehicle, immediately move away to a safe area such as the shoulder.  If the weather is bad, the area is dark, or there is a high likelihood of the accident scene being struck by more vehicles, move farther away.  A stout barrier between you and the crash isn’t a bad idea, especially when you visualize an 18-wheeler jack-knifed and sliding in your direction.

After the dust has settled and you’re safe, immediately notify the authorities and try to help others who are involved.  The first job is to warn other traffic to prevent further damage and injury.  In many cases, other drivers will stop and they can be pressed into service to help.  Regardless, someone needs to move a sufficient distance “upstream” into traffic to provide ample warning of the incident scene.

If there are other injured persons, it’s best not to move them unless the vehicle is on fire or there is still danger from oncoming traffic.  In this case, try to be as gently as possible under the circumstances, as it is not uncommon for victims to suffer further injury from well-intentioned bystanders.

One final tip: as your mother said, make sure you are wearing clean underwear.  They might not be so pristine after the crash, but at least you tried.  We won’t tell anyone that they were pink and lacy. 

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