How To Survive A Car Crash

The driver of this car walked away with minor injuries, thanks to safety features and seat belt usage. Photo by Lauren Shields, used with permission

By Jimmy Humphrey

Summer is approaching, and with it comes warm weather, vacations, and summer break. But there’s a dark side to summer: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), summer is the deadliest season for car crashes.

But what happens to you in the split second of a car crash isn’t random. There are certain types of cars you can drive and certain behaviors you can practice that will maximize your odds of surviving a car crash.

Wear Your Seat Belt

It may sound cliché, but wearing a seat belt is one of the most important things you can do to survive a car crash. According to NHTSA, only 11.5 percent of people didn’t buckle up in 2015, but 40.3 percent of people who died in car crashes in the same year weren’t buckled up. Seat belts work in all crashes, even those in which air bags don’t deploy. According to the CDC, seat belts saved 12,802 lives in the United States in 2014 alone, and according to NHTSA, nearly 330,000 lives were saved by seat belts in the United States between 1960 and 2012. According to the CDC, men aged 18-24 are the least likely to wear seat belts.

Seat belts work in all types of crashes, including those where air bags don’t. Rose Lane, 18, was in a rear-end crash where the air bags didn’t deploy.

“I think [the seat belt] stopped me from flying and hitting anything.” she said.

In 2012, ADAC, a German auto club (much like the American AAA) conducted a 40-mph offset crash test on a contemporary Opel Astra with unbelted crash test dummies. Although the occupant compartment was intact, impact force measurements from the dummies indicated life-threatening injuries. In an identical crash test conducted by EuroNCAP on the same Astra design but with the dummies wearing their seat belts, the vehicle scored very well with dummy measurements indicating only minor injuries.

An unbelted occupant can become a missile in a crash, causing injury or death to belted occupants as well. According to a 2005 study by the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, a driver is more than twice as likely to die in a frontal crash if the passenger seated behind him is not wearing a seat belt.

It’s important to wear your seat belt properly. The lap belt should be positioned across your hip bone, not over your stomach. The shoulder belt should be over your upper shoulder and sternum. Never put the shoulder or lap belt behind you, and never share a seat belt with someone else.

Air Bags Are Your Friend, If Used Properly

There are several different types of air bags: frontal air bags, knee air bags, side torso air bags, and side curtain air bags. Frontal and knee air bags are primarily effective during frontal impacts, and side and curtain air bags are primarily effective during side impacts.

Frontal air bags for driver and passenger have been mandatory on all new passenger vehicles since the 1998 model year. NHTSA estimated that nearly 43,000 lives were saved by frontal air bags alone through the end of 2012.

Emory Lewis, 19, was involved in a head-on collision where the frontal air bags deployed.

“I could have gotten a lot more hurt if it wasn’t for the air bag,” she said. Her injuries in the crash were minor.

The driver of this car credits the air bags with saving her from serious injury. Photo by Emory Lewis, used with permission

In 2008, NHTSA crash tested two Infiniti EX35s head-on into  a wall at 35 mph. The passenger front air bag failed to deploy in the first test, which led to a retest. In the test where the air bag failed, the passenger dummy’s head struck the dashboard, leading to forces that would be likely to result in serious head injury. The vehicle was re-tested, and the air bag worked properly. Head impact forces were much lower, indicating that any head injury would probably be minor. The vehicle was recalled and the problem fixed on future vehicles.

Side air bags are also very important. A 2003 IIHS study showed that side curtain air bags reduce the risk of death by 45 percent in side impact crashes. Side torso air bags were shown to reduce the risk by 11 percent.

Crash testing has proven the benefits of side air bags. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conducts a side impact crash test that is intended to show what would happen if an SUV struck the side of your vehicle at just 31 mph. The vast majority of vehicles without side air bags have been rated Poor in this crash test; a handful, mostly larger vehicles, are Marginal or Acceptable. None have been rated Good.

The 2004 Honda Accord is one of many vehicles that proves the value of side air bags. It was tested with and without optional side torso and side curtain air bags. Without the air bags, it was judged likely that a real-life driver would have been killed or severely injured. With the air bags, injuries were minor.

Air bags must inflate within 1/20 of a second during a crash; because of this, air bags are inflated with explosive force. Certain precautions are needed to ensure that the air bag helps you and doesn’t make things worse. As of 2007, 284 fatalities had been reported from frontal air bag deployments. No fatalities have resulted from side torso, side curtain, or knee air bag deployments.

However, following a few safety regulations will virtually eliminate your risk of serious injury or death from an air bag.

Proximity to the air bag is most important: according to NHTSA, you should have at least 10 inches from your sternum to the hub of the steering wheel, and the first 2-3 inches of inflation are the most dangerous. On the passenger side, you should have 20 inches between all parts of your body and the air bag module.

Pre-1998 air bags are the most dangerous; the vast majority of deaths have occurred in these vehicles.

Children under 12 years old should be seated in the rear seat, especially in pre-1998 vehicles. Of the 284 air bag fatalities, 180 were of young children seated in the front.

Other Factors of Vehicle Design

It’s a good idea to drive a car that’s at least in the “small” class (about the size of a modern Honda Civic). According to the IIHS, “mini” cars have a driver death rate that is 33 percent higher than small cars. The most dangerous class of vehicle is motorcycles; according to the IIHS, the death rate per mile on motorcycles is 27 times higher than in a car.

Choose a vehicle with good crash test ratings. NHTSA and IIHS both conduct crash tests, and together they paint a comprehensive picture of a car’s safety.

NHTSA’s test program involves three tests: a 35-mph full-frontal crash test, a 35-mph side impact crash test with a car-style barrier, and a 20-mph pole impact crash test. Results are given on a five-star scale.

IIHS conducts five tests: two frontal tests at 40 mph, a moderate overlap (which involves 40 percent of the front end) and a small overlap (which involves 25 percent of the front end), a 31-mph side impact test with an SUV-style barrier, a roof strength test, and a head restraint test. The results are given as “good,” “acceptable,” “marginal,” or “poor.” Vehicles that do well in all tests get a “Top Safety Pick” award.

Over 80 new 2017 vehicles were rated Top Safety Pick for 2017, but you don’t need to shell out new-car money to get one of the safest vehicles you can buy. IIHS offers a list of vehicles with top-notch safety ratings aimed at parents of teen drivers, but regardless of your age, a vehicle on this list is a good buy for safety. Some of the vehicles on the list can be bought for well under $10,000.

Lauren Shields, 21, is living proof that car safety engineers’ work has not been in vain. Recently, she was involved in a severe offset head-on collision and walked away with minor injuries. She was driving a 2005 Nissan Maxima, a vehicle which scored very well in the IIHS moderate overlap test.

“I was going about 45, and they were going about the same speed,” she said. “The air bag deployed and the safety features worked well.”

The crash was so severe that her driver’s door was jammed. She described her injuries as a “laceration to the eye, neck and back sprain, and a minor concussion.”

Without modern safety features, those injuries may have proven fatal.

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