The Effects of Side Impact Car Crashes on the Body

Side impact car crashes (also called "T-bone accidents" or "broadside collisions") tend to have a more devastating effect on the human body than all other types of car accidents, according to researchers at Monash University Accident Research Centre in Melbourne. Side impact car accidents kill between 8,000 and 10,000 people each year, more than rear-end and head-on collisions combined. Even at speeds as low as 30 km/h, side impact car crashes routinely cause serious injuries to the occupants of the struck car. While modern automotives have many safety features to protect drivers and passengers from front and rear accidents, such as airbags, seatbelts, and bumpers, side impact car crashes leave occupants relatively unprotected. Some automotives feature side curtain airbags, but most vehicles offer no protection from side impact crashes besides the car door.

Due to the lack of standardized safety installations to protect occupants, the types of possible injuries suffered in a side impact car crash can vary greatly, ranging between head injuries, ear injuries (most often caused by broken glass and airbags), neck injuries, back injuries, rib injuries, shoulder and arm injuries, or hip and leg injuries. For people riding on the struck side of the car, severe injuries are most commonly delivered to person’s neck, followed by the head, chest, legs, and abdomen/pelvis. For car occupants riding on the non-struck side of the car, head injuries are most common, followed by chest injuries.

While injuries to the spine, neck, and head differ in severity depending on the speed and force of impact, these are the most frequent injuries reported in US insurance claims. An estimated 66 percent of insurance claimants under bodily injury liability coverage reported minor neck injuries in 2007 alone, making up about two-thirds of all claims. Neck and spine damage often cause chronic pain, shock, and even paralysis.

Studies conducted in crash simulation labs at the Northeastern University School of Mechanical Engineering and Automation in Shenyang have shown why these usually non-lethal spinal injuries tend to be the most common. When the body of an occupant is first accelerated by the crash impact, the head remains static, which causes the neck to absorb the majority of force. As muscles and ligaments in the neck are stretched beyond their natural limits, the head begins a lateral motion to its original position, pulling the neck back in the opposite direction. This rapid movement back and forth (sometimes called whiplash) results in injuries to nerve roots and discs in the cervical spine. Besides damaging the neck and spine, this process also frequently causes concussions.

In simplest terms, a concussion is a blow to the head that changes the way the brain normally works. While a concussion doesn’t necessarily cause unconsciousness, they immediately paralyze all senses as the brain bruises, or even begins bleeding externally. According to Missouri University Health Care, concussions have three levels of severity. A mild concussion will not cause unconsciousness, and only results in confusion and the inability to think clearly for less than fifteen minutes. A moderate concussion doesn’t cause unconsciousness either, but lasts more than fifteen minutes, and causes memory loss along with confusion. Severe concussions cause people to become unconscious, lose memory, and have trouble thinking and moving upon waking up.

Concussions occur when blunt trauma or blows to the body cause the brain to rapidly jostle against the interior skull, possibly also twisting and rotating the brain from its original position in the process. Both types of concussions commonly happen in side impact car crashes. Since concussions are rarely life-threatening, some medical professionals may describe a concussion as a "mild" brain injury, but their effects can be serious, and may even leave lifelong damage.

The CDC now recognizes concussions as a form of traumatic brain injury. The strain of a concussion can cause axons (the long fibers that connect brain cells) to stretch or swell, disrupting their ability to send and receive signals. Damaged axons may permanently lose their ability to communicate with the rest of the body. If left untreated, lingering symptoms may include headaches, fatigue, chronic pain, loss of coordination, depression, anxiety, vertigo, dizziness, epilepsy, blurred vision, eye pain, attention disorders, reading comprehension problems, and continued memory loss. To prevent these persistent symptoms, it is imperative to alleviate swelling in the brain with an ice pack and to stay under medical supervision for at least 24 hours in case further complications occur. Follow-up appointments to ensure proper healing are heavily recommended during the days or weeks spent in recovery. The likelihood of permanent brain damage dramatically increases if a concussion isn’t treated immediately.

While whiplash and concussions are the most definitive injuries caused by side impact car crashes, injuries to the limbs and chest remain about as common as those sustained in rear-end or head-on collisions. Occupants on the unstruck side of the car are more likely to suffer these more common limb and chest injuries when they are hit by the body of the person in the seat next to them, or by the upright pillar immediately behind the front door where the seatbelt is anchored.

Side impact car crashes most often occur at intersections when drivers run red lights or stop signs, and have a significantly higher chance of causing bodily damage when the struck car is broadsided by a larger car with a higher bumper. The speed and size of the striking car determine the severity of the crash. While there are vehicles with better safety ratings of side impact protection than others, such as the Chevrolet Cruze, the Hyundai Sonata, the Toyota Sienna, and the Ford F-150, very few offer the features needed to keep occupants safe in the event of a side collision. This vulnerability in most automotives leads to more neck, spine, and head injuries than any other type of injury sustained in a side impact crash.


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