Lessons learned from a car accident

[Granby Drummer Masthead]

Copyright © 2001 Rob Levandowski, all rights reserved.

Shortly after taking delivery of his new vehicle, the author visited Saab’s web site and read the owner’s manual. He found recommendations for getting the most benefit from his vehicle’s safety equipment and driving hints that weren’t covered in driver’s ed. The following article describes how that research and following the manufacturer’s advice helped save him from injury in an automobile accident.

In the twelve years I’ve been driving, I never had a serious accident. Occasionally, the thought would occur—what would it be like? Would the airbag help or hurt me? Would I be injured? It wasn’t a deciding factor in my choice of car, but my car is designed to protect the passengers first even if it means the vehicle sustains more damage.

On the last day of January I did have an accident. Both drivers walked away unhurt. Even though it was a fairly serious accident in terms of damage to the cars, I walked away without so much as a bruise. That was due to two things: a safe car, and more importantly, utilizing the car’s safety features correctly.

Moments after it became obvious that I was about to have a serious accident, the airbags inflated. I didn’t perceive the noise of the inflation. It happened too quickly to register above the sound of tortured metal. I noticed it as a momentary whiteout of my vision, as the bag obscured my sight for a fraction of a second. Then, there was a limp airbag in my lap and a haze of smoke in the car.

Should your airbag go off, be prepared for the smoke. Airbags inflate using a combination of compressed gas and an explosive charge. The result is a cloud of smoke, smelling much like the smoke from a gunshot. For some time after the accident, it vents out of the airbags, the steering wheel and the dashboard. Bystanders may think your car is on fire if they’ve never seen the aftermath of an airbag deployment before.

The airbag may be quite hot soon after it inflates. Newer model airbags use special gasses to remain cool, but airbags in older cars may be hot enough to cause mild burns just after they go off.

Take it sitting down

I’m certain that my lack of injuries was due to learning about my car’s safety features, setting them up correctly, and getting into safe car habits.

The first thing to remember is—generally, it’s not the sudden deceleration of the car that hurts you. It’s when you decelerate at a different speed from the car that you get hurt. Slamming into the steering wheel or sliding away from the seat will be what injures you in most accidents. Therefore, your first goal is to stay stuck to your car.

It goes without saying that everyone should wear seat belts any time the car is in motion. Children should be restrained in the back seat in a properly tested child safety seat that is appropriate for your car. Attend a local clinic to learn how to properly install the seat. Keep older children in a booster seat and properly adjusted seat belts until they are large enough to be safe sitting on the seat. Passengers should never ride in the cargo area. Adult passengers need seat belts too, even in the back seat.

Just as importantly, wear the seatbelt properly. The seatbelt should lay flat anyplace that it touches your body. If it’s twisted or rolled, it will be weaker and put more force on your body. That increases the chances of bruising or belt failure.

The buckle should be put into the proper latch. If the latch isn’t tight, have it repaired. Tighten the belt so it holds you firmly but comfortably in the seat. Make sure nothing in your clothing will get trapped between you and the belt: sunglass cases, pencils in shirt pockets, cellphones and pagers on your belt can all hurt you if the belt, airbag, or wheel forces them into your body. Had I not removed my sunglass case from my jacket’s inside pocket that night, I probably would have had a broken rib or two.

If your car permits it, adjust the height of the shoulder belt so it doesn’t cut into your neck, or fall off your shoulder. If the belt isn’t long enough, your auto dealer can provide a factory-rated extension kit.

Don’t forget the seat belt is your primary line of defense in an accident. If it is soiled or damaged in any way, replace it immediately. Chemical and physical damage could cause it to fail just when you need it most. Consider it part of your life insurance.

The seat is just as important. Never use protectants or waxes on leather or vinyl seats. They make the seat slippery. There are special detergents for seats that won’t endanger you.

Seat covers can be dangerous, because they can break loose and make you slide, causing an accident or making one worse. If your car has side airbags, they may deploy from the seams of the seat–turning the seat cover (especially one made of wood beads) into a projectile in a side-impact accident.

Take care when adjusting your seat. A common cause of injury is “submarining:” sliding off the seat and under the dash in an accident. If you normally tilt the front of the seat downward, you’re at greater risk. Keep the seat back as close to straight up as is comfortable. A straight seat back can take more crash force, and the seatbelt and headrests will work better.

In most cars, the dashboard extends down very close to your knees. This “knee bolster” is intended to keep you from sliding under the dash. You want your knees as close to this bolster as comfortable, but your knees shouldn’t hit the bolster in normal operation of the car. The less distance your knees have to go before hitting this bolster in an accident, the less damage they’ll take.

Save your neck by adjusting the headrest properly. The headrest is intended to keep your neck from snapping back in a collision—a condition known as whiplash. The top of the headrest should be just above the tops of your ears when properly adjusted. If your seat is well designed and properly positioned, your head should almost, but not quite, touch the headrest. The shorter the distance your head moves in an accident, the less chance of injury.

Now that you’re snug in your seat, consider the steering wheel. Chances are your car has an airbag, and you’ll see the letters “SRS” (Supplemental Restraint System) on the wheel. “Supplemental” means the airbag is a backup to the seat belt, not a replacement. It can save your life, but remember: it is an explosive device aimed straight at you. Treat it with respect.

It’s important to leave room for the airbag to inflate. Adjust your seat and steering wheel until you find a position where you are comfortable, and there is room to put your hands at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions on the wheel. Ideally, you could fit a large pillow between your body and the wheel. Avoid aiming the airbag at your face, or where it could hit you on the chin and snap your head back.

If your hands are at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions on the wheel, or even a bit lower, they are out of harm’s way. You don’t want your arms over the airbag and injured if it goes off. If you see an accident coming, keep your hands on the wheel! Trying to protect your face with your hands will probably cause additional injury from the airbag.

Avoiding accidents

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of accident in the first place.

Adjust the rear view mirrors properly. Start with the interior mirror on the windshield. Without moving your head, you should be able to glance at it and see traffic directly behind you for some distance. Also, make sure that it doesn’t block your view of the road ahead. Most cars allow for some up-and-down adjustment of the mirror. Never hang anything from your mirror, to avoid blind spots.

Now adjust the side mirrors. Most people think they should see the sides of their car in the side mirrors. In fact, that indicates your mirrors are set dangerously near to the car.

Using your inside rear view mirror as a guide, adjust the side mirrors so there’s almost no overlap between the inside and outside mirror images when your head is in a normal looking-forward driving position. You’ll find this unnatural at first, but you’ll also notice that it’s much easier to see traffic in adjacent lanes. In most cars, you can almost eliminate blind spots using this technique.

The little things

  • Put your key in the ignition. Consider where your knee will go if it’s driven forward into the dash. If it’s going straight for that thin, hard key, you might want to adjust the seat again. Also, remove any unnecessary things from your key ring.
  • Do you have lots of loose cargo? Use the car’s storage pockets for the little stuff. Use a seatbelt to strap that briefcase or laptop in place—if it hits the back of your seat with ballistic force in an accident, it’s going to hurt. For things like grocery bags and cardboard boxes, use a cargo net or tie downs.
  • Replace your wiper blades twice a year—more often if they need it. Get quality, name-brand wipers; the extra few bucks make a difference. Windshield repellant treatments can make your wipers more effective.
  • Blue windshield washer fluid is cheap, but it’s not very effective. In the summer, use a bug-removing formula. In winter, use a de-icing formula. The extra cost eliminates bug smears and frost that can blind you.
  • Learn where your hazard flasher button is located. Make sure you can press it even if you can’t see it. In an accident, if you’re immobilized, you’ll want to make yourself visible to other cars.
  • Turn your headlamps on when you’re driving. One of the best ways to avoid an accident is to be more visible to other drivers. Don’t rely on daytime running lights, which may not turn on your taillights, leaving you invisible from the rear.
  • Most importantly, know your car and its limits. In a safe place, like an empty parking lot, test your brakes under panic-stop conditions, and see how your car handles as you steer it. This is especially true with that first snowfall. Knowing how your car will react to emergency conditions can save your life.

The safest car in the world is useless if you don’t make your personal safety a habit in setting up and using your car. Good luck, and safe driving.

p.s. Now would be a great time to check your auto insurance policy. Make sure it covers a rental car in case of accident. Many policies don’t include this by default, but the extra cost is negligible. You don’t want to find out you’re not covered the day after your accident.

For more information on my auto accident, see my Saab page.

This article was originally published in the March 2001 issue of The Granby Drummer.

Comments are closed.