How to Survive a Car Crash

By Indefinitely Wild on at

Driving is the most dangerous thing most people do. It’s also something for which they likely have no or minimal training. Before you hit the road for bank holiday weekend, let’s look at how to make it more survivable.

The Best Way To Survive A Crash

Driving is a skill like any other. And, to learn a skill, you need to learn what to practice, then do just that repeatedly until you achieve competence. And, as with any inherently dangerous activity, that should be done in a safe, controlled environment where the only variable is you. That not only removes most of the danger, but it speeds up your learning curve, allowing you to experiment and push hard enough to make mistakes, then learn from them.

You simply can’t achieve that on a public road. Simply logging miles in an unchallenging environment is not practice. You are not advancing your driving skills by sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, listening to the radio.

Yes, advanced driving tuition on a race track or closed environment is expensive. I’m preaching enough here so I won’t ask you what value you put on your life, but simply compare the price you'll pay to all the money you spend on your cars, accident repairs, and insurance over a lifetime of driving; the cost is insignificant when the advantage you get from it — competent driving — is so great.

The best way to survive a crash is not to have one in the first place. Learn to drive with expertise, then drive safely. No car is capable of keeping you safe in any accident; your own skills are your best chance at survival.

Proper Seatbelt Use

For the rest of the article, let’s assume that an accident is inevitable and not something you can drive your way out of. Maybe you’re a passenger in an Uber or you just want to know how to increase your odds once circumstances leave your control.

The first line of accident safety is the humble seatbelt. The NHTSA says that half of all accident deaths could be prevented by proper seatbelt usage. There’s no statistics on how many people don’t wear them correctly, but anecdotally it’s a lot. So let’s look at how to do that; your seatbelt is no good unless you’re using it right.

The NHTSA advises:

  • A shoulder harness is worn across the shoulder and chest with minimal, if any slack. The shoulder harness should not be worn under the arm or behind the back. Wearing the harness the wrong way could cause serious internal injuries in a crash.
  • The lap belt should be adjusted so that it is snug and lies low across your hips after fastening. If you have an automatic shoulder belt, be sure to buckle your lap belt as well. Otherwise, in a collision you could slide out of the belt and be hurt or killed.
  • You should be seated upright with your back against the seat and feet on the floor. Improper seating positions, such as slouching or resting one’s feet on the dashboard can result in reduced effectiveness of the vehicle’s restraint system and possibly result in injury.

The basic idea is that the lap belt needs to sit against your hip bones, using those “hard points” to restrain your body in a crash. It should be worn almost horizontally flat across your lap. Higher and the extreme forces will cause the seatbelt to pulverise your organs and you could actually slide below it, in which case the airbag won’t work properly.

Some newer cars are actually adding airbags to the seat bases to lift the seat when those explode, preventing this “submarining.” You can achieve the same effect simply by making sure your lap belt is snug and actually across your lap, not your stomach.

In a racing car, where 5-point harnesses protect the driver in a crash instead of airbags, the idea is to cinch those down as tightly as possible. This minimises the amount your body travels and builds momentum before “hitting” the belts. At high speeds, even a tiny bit of movement caused by slack can break bones. While this effect is not as extreme in a road car, the lesson everyone can learn is that a tighter, closer fitting seatbelt is a safer one. Keep both your lap and shoulder belts snug and properly positioned. Do not allow foreign objects — large belt buckles and similar — to sit between your body and the belts and do not become twisted in them.

It’s also important to sit upright, with the seat and steering wheel properly adjusted. Not only does this facilitate control, but it’s the position in which all your safety equipment is designed to work. You should be close enough to the pedals that you can depress them fully without fully extending your leg and the steering wheel should be close enough to you that you can exert control over it throughout the movement of your arms; adjust it so you can just see the top of the speedometer clearly under the upper portion of the wheel. Also remember your headrest, which prevents undue rearward movement of your head; in this position it should sit as close to the back of your head as possible and high enough so that the base of your skull contacts it fully.

What Happens When An Airbag Goes Off

Ever been in an accident in a modern car? An airbag (or several) may save your life, but in doing so it will likely injure you. They’re able to inflate so fast because they’re operated by an explosive charge, so they’re not only filled with air hot enough to burn you on contact, but in order to “cushion” the extreme forces experienced in a crash, they need to inflate very firmly. Hitting one is like head butting a rock. It can break your nose or other face bones, can slam your arms into your face or eyes if it catches those on the way out and making use of one just generally isn’t a fun experience.

Know where the airbags are inside your car and endeavour to avoid placing obstacles between them and your body. Holding the steering wheel on its sides and never crossing one or both arms across it can help avoid having your arms and any watches or jewellery you might be wearing rammed into your face with explosive force.

Many cars will automatically turn off when the airbags deploy. It’s a good idea to know the proper procedure for restarting your car afterwards; there are situations in which you may need to move your car for safety reasons or where you may be unable to reach emergency responders. Simply disconnecting the battery cables and reconnecting them may be enough. Some newer cars have a “safety” feature that physically disconnects the battery, in which case you’ll need to either bypass or replace that unit. Your owner’s manual should contain this information.

Flying Objects

A study conducted by Intel and the University of California, Irvine found that cars contain, on average, 4.3 potentially dangerous loose objects in their cabins. That could be anything from your laptop to your dog.

In a crash, these objects are accelerated to high rates of relative speed almost instantaneously, which is what can make them fatal. Think about your aluminium unibody MacBook hitting the back of your head at 50mph…

The best practice is to simply put any loose stuff in your boot or pickup bed, where it can’t get to you. If you want to keep it in your car’s cabin, take efforts to secure it. You can loop a seatbelt through a backpack’s straps or stick your computer in the glovebox.

And if a little Macbook can kill you, imagine the effect an unbelted passenger in the backseat will have on the front seat occupants. Making sure your passengers use their seatbelt isn’t just a matter of their safety. Pets too, will become flying projectiles in a crash. That’ll kill them and potentially injure you too, no matter their size. We use a Ruffwear Load Up Harness to belt our dogs in.

Consider this too if you’re using a truck or cargo van to transport heavy stuff. Imagine rolling down an embankment with your cargo flying around inside the vehicle with you…human sausage meat. Properly lash any cargo down using straps strong enough to retain the load attached to the vehicle’s dedicated lashing points.

Don’t Brace

The forces you experience at even moderate speed will exceed the strength of your bones and muscles. Ducking will move you out of the effective safety zone created by the airbags and your seatbelt. Bracing could break your limbs or put your arms in the way of your airbag.

It’s hard, but try to just relax and let the accident run its course. There’s nothing you can do now to effect its outcome.

Auto Survival Tools

It’s a great idea to keep a seatbelt cutter, glass breaker thingy in your car. And to know how to use it. In a severe crash, your seatbelt may lock or jam, forcing you to cut them to escape.

Carrying a fire extinguisher is also a great idea. Just make sure it’s securely bolted to your car’s floor or transmission tunnel so it doesn’t become a lethal flying metal cylinder in a crash.

And obviously a comprehensive first aid kit should be carried by everyone. In your car, scale it up to treat multiple people and focus it around trauma — stopping bleeding. A blanket, torch, flares and other basics are also important to keep around.

Your phone is likely the most important piece of survival equipment in your car though. In any accident severe enough to cause injury, dialling 999 as soon as you’re safe should be your number one priority. If you witness an accident, call it in; I’m always shocked at how often people simply assume someone else has done this.

When To Exit Your Vehicle

Even after a crash, your vehicle may remain the safest place for you to be. A crash can involve multiple vehicles over an extended period of time — the proverbial highway pileup. So, once your own car has stopped moving, your first task is to assess the situation. Is it safe to leave your car? Is there moving traffic or other hazards close by? If it is safe to leave your car, do so. Batteries and gas tanks can catch fire, sometimes without a sign until minutes later. Move to a safe distance, call an ambulance and see to any injuries.

Evaluate this risk of fire or further crashing if one of your passengers or another driver is unconscious or severely injured. If you don’t have to move them due to immediate danger, don’t. Doing so may exacerbate the injuries they’ve experienced. Get that ambulance on the way.

Top Photo: Alessandro Cani 


This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there