How to survive a motor vehicle accident

October 20, 2011

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

Since the widespread introduction of automobiles in the early 20th century, motor vehicle collisions have replaced falling off a horse as a leading cause of death and disability. Each year in the U.S. alone more than 30,000 people die and untold hundreds of thousands are seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents. How can you protect yourself and your family?


If you want to be able to survive a car accident, you must start with a safe vehicle. When buying a car, consult the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety list of vehicles and choose a car with a "G" rating. It goes without saying that seat belts must be buckled to be effective, but also that they are fastened snugly and worn low across the hip-bones, not the stomach. (This is especially important during pregnancy and for people who may be obese.) The shoulder harness likewise needs to be fastened correctly. It should contact the shoulder and chest, but not the neck. The seat belt should be as tight as possible without being uncomfortable. Remember: Seat belts are necessary even in the presence of an air bag.

Once we have a safe vehicle we must consider the driver. New drivers, especially teenagers, have a much higher incidence of collisions--hence their higher insurance rates. Research shows that accidents most occur with other teenagers in the car, but any distracted driver can be a danger to himself and others. Talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, or even gazing at the scenery while driving is potentially very dangerous. It goes without saying that driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not only illegal but also dangerous.

The third of the triad of factors that contribute to motor vehicle collisions is the road. Avoid roadways that are poorly designed for safety and unsafe because of weather conditions, or that have a history of accidents. It is only prudent to avoid driving when road conditions are especially hazardous, such as during a snowstorm.

Finally, every driver must learn to protect oneself from other drivers by driving defensively. Leave a safe interval between yourself and other vehicles based on your speed, the road surface, and weather conditions. Be aware that heavier and more massive vehicles, such as large trucks, take much longer to stop. In the event that a collision becomes inevitable, it may be possible to mitigate its effects or even choose your collision. For example, it may be possible to steer to the right of an oncoming vehicle, get off the road, and avoid the collision completely, or collide with a less dangerous object.

If you have chosen the safest possible vehicle, buckled your seat belt, and drive defensively, you will have the greatest chance of avoiding and/or surviving a motor vehicle collision.

Originally published Oct 20, 2011 2:47:09 PM.