Statistics say you’ll probably have a highway accident. Do you know what to do when it comes? Here’s how to escape with bruises instead of a crushed skull

FRED BODSWORTH October 1 1952


Statistics say you’ll probably have a highway accident. Do you know what to do when it comes? Here’s how to escape with bruises instead of a crushed skull

FRED BODSWORTH October 1 1952



Statistics say you’ll probably have a highway accident. Do you know what to do when it comes? Here’s how to escape with bruises instead of a crushed skull


“We have failed to put to use the plain facts about crash safety,” research scientists say. In most accidents the wife or girl friend in the “death seat” — next to the driver — is in greatest danger.

WHILE you read this article two people will be killed in Canadian and U. S. automobile crashes. In the next twelve months ten thousand Canadian automobile passengers and drivers will be killed or permanently crippled. Yet while this grisly toll is taken professional stunt drivers will continue to roll cars over and wreck them in head-on crashes for grandstand crowds and rarely suffer more than bruises.

You, too, could climb unscathed out of a demolished car. Safety experts, backed up by experienced stunt drivers, estimate that seventy-five to ninety percent of auto fatalities could be prevented by the addition of about ten dollars’ worth of equipment to every car and a bit of education in the stunt-driver techniques of how to have an accident without killing yourself.

This has nothing to do with accident prevention —it’s accident survival. Cars could keep right on smashing head-on, rolling over in ditches, flattening themselves against trees. The only change would be that at least seven out of ten who now die could live.

Our approach to the problem of traffic deaths and injuries has been peculiarly lopsided. Police and safety experts have directed all their attention to accident prevention. But as long as we drive cars there will be accidents. We’ve been told plenty about avoiding accidents, but no one has given advice on how to have an accident and live.

Several years ago in St. Thomas, Ont., I saw two cars collide head-on. The cars were not extensively damaged—one had practically stopped, the other driver had braked down to twenty or twenty-five miles an hour. But a Michigan woman in the front seat of the moving car died of a fractured skull suffered when she was thrown forward against the instrument panel.

On the other hand, Ted Gilbert, a veteran jalopy jockey who drives a souped-up car in twice-a-week stock car races at Toronto’s Exhibition Grounds, got in a tangle on a curve not long ago and was struck by another jalopy at a speed not much under fifty. Gilbert’s car was lifted off the ground and tossed ten feet. Gilbert was rushed to hospital but went home on a streetcar two hours later. His only injuries were a four-inch bruise on his side and a wrenched shoulder.

Why did the Michigan woman die in a twentymile-an-hour crash while Gilbert came through a fifty-mile-an-hour impact with only bruises?

It wasn't luck.

Gilbert survived because he was strapped to his seat with an aircraft-type safety belt. Stunt drivers and racers have known for years that you can smash a car with virtual impunity as long as you can protect your head and body from the sledge hammer blows of being tossed around inside.

“Rarely is the passenger compartment of car smashed in so badly that people couldn’t survive if they were held by safety belts,” says Arthur H. Rowan, of the accident recording division, Ontario Department of Highways.

Safety belts have not become widely used in automobiles simply because few motorists understand their function and value. The minor inconvenience of fastening them is far outweighed by the life-saving protection they give. Safety lielts permit you and your passengers to wear your car as though it were i suit of armor. In a crash they turn the crumpling metal of your car's body into a cushion.

But, even ignoring safety lielts, there is still plenty the average motorist can and should learn about how to have an accident. Safety ex[>erts, truck fleet bosses, police, emergency ward doctors, pilots and stunt drivers know that the lethal factor in most highway crashes isn't the crash itself hut

the manner in which drivers and passengers meet it.

The first lesson in accident survival is an understanding that accident causes and injury causes are not the same thing. Because of our preoccupation with accident causes and their prevention there has been little research until recently on the causes of injuries in accidents.

Often where one person is killed outright in « crash others will clamber from the same car virtually unharmed. Experts say this is proof that severity of the impact itself is a secondary factor in determining whether those involved shall live or die. Indiana state police recently found that sixty-six percent of accidents in which fatalities occur could be classed as survivable. The report summed up: “The force present in many traffic

accidents, now fatal, is well within the physiological limits of survival.”

Hugh de Haven, director of crash injury research project at Cornell University medical college, New York City, reports: “Many crash

deaths have been needless. We have failed to put to use plain facts about crash safety. We have gone from horses to horsepower, and from miles an hour to miles a minute, with a complacent acceptance of injury as a normal crash result.”

One misconception is the belief that cars of more solid construction would reduce accident injuries. Cars could be constructed so solidly that they could hit a stone wall without displacing a single nut, but drivers would kill themselves faster than ever. When a car’s bumper, grill, radiator, chassis and fenders fold up in a head-on crash they are actually providing a cushion of yielding steel up to three feet deep. The car doesn’t stop abruptly; it takes two or three feet in which to stop. From the standpoint of passenger survival there is a big difference between decelerating from forty miles an hour to a standstill in three feet, and doing it in nothing flat.

But only racers and stunt men take advantage of this. The rest of us, when a crash comes, are sitting loosely inside the car like marbles in a matchbox. The car stops in three feet, but persons inside keep right on traveling at the original speed until they strike something within the car. If you can slow down with the car you stand a good chance of surviving. The killer is usually that hundredthof-a-second gap between the time the car stops and passengers inside it stop.

An adult head weighs as much as a ten-pound sledge hammer and it packs the same energy when propelled forward at fifty miles an hour. If it strikes a surface that will dent or yield like the soft ductile metal of some modern dashboards and the force is absorbed by a large area of the head, the skull can usually withstand » blow at this velocity. But if the impact is localized by an instrument button or o sharp corner, fatal skull fracture and concussion can occur at velocities as low as twelve miles an hour. Oddly, a surface can lie too soft to protect the skull adequately. A rubber pad will yield suddenly without materially slowing down movement, permitting the skull to come up solidly against whatever is liehind. Many crash injury researchers scoff at sponge-rubber padding on some dashboards. At average crash velocity, they say, an inch of sponge rubber offers the protection roughly of a piece of papier unless it has yielding metal lieneath. Soft metal, however, will shapie itself around the head and start checking the skull’s velocity at the first instant of impact.

A Detroit doctor's study showed that skull and liram injuries caused sixty-seven percent of accident deaths. A Virginia doctor groupied accident injuries in this order of frequency and seriousness: head injuries, usually suffered by front-seat passengers striking

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How to Live Through a Crash


windshield or dashboard, or by rearseat passengers striking the back of the front seat; chest injuries, usually suffered by the driver being thrown against the steering wheel; hip dislocations and pelvis fractures, suffered usually by passengers; elbow injuries caused by the elbow protruding from a window, suffered most commonly by drivers.

Front-seat passengers are in three times as much danger of being killed or injured as the driver or rear-seat passengers. Police call this spot the “death seat” for here three out of four crash fatalities occur. The driver, protected by the wheel, is in the safest spot of all except in occasional highvelocity crashes severe enough to push the steering column back into his chest, when the wheel becomes a deadly hazard. Rear-seat passengers are almost as well off as the driver. When catapulted forward their impact is cushioned by a front seat or by the bodies of persons ahead of them.

But the “death seat” rider has nothing in front of her (seventy percent are girl friends or wives of the driver) but a menacing glass windshield and an instrument panel with sharp comers, ledges and knobs.

Doctors in emergency wards can almost always identify the position that victims occupied in an accident car as soon as they are carried from the ambulance. The typical “deathseat” injury consists of cuts and skull fractures in the forehead area combined with crushing injuries and fractures to the upper third of the face, usually the nose. These injuries result when the forehead first strikes and shatters the windshield and the head is then deflected downward so that the upper face strikes the top of the instrument panel.

Children in the “death seat,” or a baby on an adult’s lap, are more subject to crash injury because of their lightness and the fact that their feet are not braced on the floor.

Drivers rarely suffer skull fractures. The typical driver injury is a crushed chest, rib fractures and. in severe crashes, lung punctures caused by striking the steering wheel. Frequently combined with these are jaw fractures caused by the top of the wheel.

Recently a Detroit woman was severely hurt while a passenger in a funeral procession car traveling at twenty miles an hour. The driver had merely stopped abruptly to avoid hitting another car. It isn’t the speed at which you hit—it’s what and hnw you hit. Only automobile designers have control over the “what,” but you can do plenty to control the “how.”

So far we have purchased cars for appearance and performance only. The man buying a car wall look for a smart instrument panel, ignoring the fact that the embellishments which give it smartness might also some day shatter his wife’s skull. Designers could increase the crash safety of cars by employing plastics in place of glass, collapsible steering columns, instrument panels of soft metal padded with rubber, doors that wouldn’t fly open at every buckling of the frame and by the elimination of projecting handles, knobs and ashtrays. But designers have had little incentive to build crash safety into cars because motorists have been taught to regard accidents only as hazards to be prevented, not as hazards which, when unpreventable.

might still be survived. One firm turned out a crash-safe car a few years ago and almost lost its shirt.

So, for a while at least, you will have to protect yourself in cars as they exist today. If you are forced into a crash, you are going to get hurt in spite of all you do. Your concern is to get yourself hurt in such a way that a doctor instead of an undertaker can patch up the damage. Your body, if given half a chance, will survive a beating which all but the crash-injury experts would swear was unsurvivable.

To determine the crash force the

human body will withstand the Cornell crash-injury project investigated falls and would-be suicide leaps which people survived without serious injury.

One man fell fifteen stories without breaking a bone. He landed face downward across the hood and front fenders of a parked car. The force was distributed over most of his body and the sheet metal “shock absorbed" his fall by caving in eight inches. The human body is marvelously engineered to stand terrific deceleration force if that force is not concentrated against .. limited area of the body.

By computing the velocities and stopping distances of such falls Hugh de Haven, director of Cornell's crash research, has determined that the human body can slow down from fifty miles an hour to a dead stop in six inches without severely hurting itself. Yet the average automobile crash occurs at a speed well under fifty, and there is a cushioning there normally of one to three feet instead of six inches.

So how do you go about slowing down with the car?

“Stunt drivers know a few tricks

that will help a lot," Corporal Floyd Haight, of the Ontario Provincial Police, an officer with many years’ highway patrol experience, told me, “but there is only one sure way—wear a safety belt.”

“It is strange safety belts were not used on cars from the very beginning.” says William W. Harper, a consulting physicist of Pasadena, Calif., one of the continent's leading authorities on crash-injury causes and safety belts. “If brakes were considered necessary for cars, why did no one consider it advisable that they also be made available to the occupants? Why stop the car if the occupants can't

But the automotive trade shies away from safety belts. “Never heard of such an idea.” an executive of the Federation of Automobile Dealer Associations of Canada exclaimed. "People would get the idea that automobiles are as dangerous as planes. They'd be afraid to buy cars.”

The statistical fact is that the fatality hazard per passengers carried is about twice as great in private cars as in scheduled airliners where the use of safety belts is routine. The air traveler who automatically does up his seat belt on the plane will meet his wife at the airport and drive home in the family car without realizing that he needs that seat belt twice as much on the highway as in the air.

Not only does the safety belt stop the body with the car it also saves a person from being thrown out when an accident rips doors open. Almost as many persons are killed by being thrown out of cars as are killed within the cars themselves, but until designers eliminate this hazard with crash-proof door latches, safety belts can be practically complete protection.

A third protection provided by safety belts is that they hold the driver where he can retain control of the car after collisions. Many minor collisions become major crashes when a driver is thrown from the wheel and his car, out of control, strikes a tree or another vehicle. On this point crash-injury experts have another beef against car design—they say slippery surfaced seat covers have greatly increased this losing-control-by-losing-your-seat hazard.

Most authorities recommend the lap belt, though admitting that another type provides greater protection. The lap belt sacrifices some safety for the sake of added comfort. With the lap

belt, only the hip area is held and there is complete freedom of body movement above and below the hips. In a crash the head and upper body can still pivot forward from the hips and sustain severe head injuries. However, a lap belt prevents the body’s weight from following through behind the head, reducing the force of a head blow by about sixty percent. It also contributes greatly to safety by limiting the range of the head.

For complete protection, a Sam Browne type shoulder-and-chest strap, as used by fighter pilots, is required in addition to the lap belt. But the shoulder harness restricts movement and its nuisance factor is greater.

Motorists resist change ifour-wheel brakes were dubbed a fancy unnecessary gimmick when first introduced) but safety experts predict you will see many' more seat belts in future cars. Pilots particularly, hundreds of whom survived wartime crashes because of their safety belts, are asking for them. Many private fliers are having them installed in their cars as well as their planes. Some U. S. insurance companies are said to be considering lower rates for cars equipped with safetybelts.

Norm Brioux, a Toronto stunt driver who operates a service station, has had several enquiries for safety belts. He’s anxious to clear up some common misconceptions about them. They aren’t a nuisance, he says, for they require only about ten seconds to buckle up. They don’t leave you trapped helplessly in a wreck, for they can be released with a flip of one finger. And when belts are worn car occupants are much more likely to be conscious after a crash and able to help themselves out. They' don’t cause internal abdominal injuries except in crashes so severe that they would have been fatal without the belt. They don’t encourage recklessness any more than shatterproof glass did when first introduced. They are not uncomfortable for it isn't necessary to have the belt pulled up tightly—four inches of hip movement gives the best protection. And Brioux swears they contribute so much to a sense of safety and well-being that passengers forget to do any back-seat

Ten to fifteen dollars will install safetybelts in the front seat of your car. The belts themselves cost about three dollars each: installation costs

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four or five dollars. The belts are hard to find for only shops which cater to race drivers now stock them but, with stock-car racing gaining rapidly in popularity, safety belts are now available somewhere in most Canadian cities. Belts and installation for both front and rear seats cost less than twenty-five dollars. The belts have to be securely anchored to a U-bar which is bolted through the floor behind each seat to-the frame underneath the car.

But remember that lap-type belts cannot prevent all injuries, for the head and upper body can still pivot forward in a crash. That’s why safety experts recommend that belt wearers, as well as those unp'otected by belts, study and practice the stunt-driver techniques of crash protection.

Stunt drivers don’t use safety belts for their most dangerous act—the seventv-miles-an-hour head-on crash (each car travels at thirty-five). You can’t prepare for a head-on crash the way the stunt drivers do. but you can adopt the principle they employ. Cars to be wrecked in the head-on grand finale crash are first prepared by reversing the back of the driver’s seat so that the cushion faces rearwards. Several seconds before impact the driver of each car jumps over onto the floor of the back seat and crouches against the reversed seat cushion. He steers the car with one hand over the back of the seat and controls the gas with the other hand by a wire attached to the throttle. A second before the crash he drops down behind the seat so that the side of his face, shoulder and hip are pressed firmly against the cushion. Even minor injuries or bruises rarely occur.

Back-seat passengers can do much the same thing if they have a second or two of warning If there is only one back-seat passenger, de Haven of Cornell recommends that he drop to the floor and roll so that he is lying on his side with his back pressed against the front seat. The most important precaution is to have the head firmly against the back of the seat, for even an inch or two of free head movement before it hits can greatly increase the force of the blow.

The driver, whether wearing a seat belt or not. can reduce the crash injury hazard by leaning forward against the wheel and shielding his face and forehead with his forearms in the last second before an impact. For fullest protection the chest should be pressed

so firmly against the wheel that the horn will be blaring. How your head can best be cushioned by the forearms will depend on your height and model of car. A short driver may have to protect his jaw against the upper rim of the steering wheel, while a tall driver may find he has to cushion the top of his head against the upper frame of the windshield. In this position there Ls no forward swing of the head and with reasonable luck, even without a safety belt, you may manage to break only a couple of ribs and a forearm instead of your skull.

The “death seat” passenger can cushion her head in similar fashion with forearms pressed, one against the windshield and the other on top of the instrument panel.

How much time will you have for this manoeuvre? If you come over the crest of a hill at fifty to be confronted by another car in your lane coming at you at the same speed you will havi about three seconds. Stunt drivers sav that with practice the head can cushioned in the forearms against the front of the car in one second.

After brain and chest injuries the next most serious injury hazard of automobile crashes are hip dislocations frequently combined with pelvis fractures. Pelvic injuries by themselves rarely cause death but petgn anent disabilities often result, and eveD where there is no permanent dis-

ability use of the hip is frequently lost for six months.

Hip dislocations and fractures are automobile-age injuries that were rare before high-speed cars. Only recently have doctors discovered the reason for many of them: the common habit of

sitting with one knee crossed over the other places the upper knee level with (he instrument panel. In this dangerously flexed position the knee receives a heavy blow in direct line with the thigh so that its full force is iransmitted back to the hip’s “ball and socket” joint. As the thigh bone lies almost entirely out of its socket in this position it doesn’t take much of a blow to cause a dislocation, usually accompanied by fractures. Thus, in the “death seat.” crossed knees at the time of an accident are almost certain to cause hip dislocation. Drivers of accident cars rarely suffer hip injuries because they can't cross their knees.

Stunt driver Brioux had another tip, learned on the stock-car race tracks “In a rear-end crash your head snaps back and it’s easy to dislocate or even fracture your neck.” he said. “If you have to stop abruptly and you see in the rear-vision mirror that someone is going to plow into you from behind, slide down so that the back of your head is against the seat cushion.”

Every highway patrol officer I talked to sooner or later got around to another point.

“When a driver is suddenly confronted with an unavoidable head-on smash at high speed, so many forget that often they can have a small accident instead of a big one by leaving the road.” said Inspector Douglas H. Darby, of the Ontario Provincial Police. “Transport drivers call it ‘taking to the dirt.’ Police are investigating fatal accidents all the time in which there are skid marks down the pavement for a hundred and fifty feet or more before the cars finally crash. The driver has had three or four seconds to swerve off the highway to his right. Frequently there’s nothing there but a shallow ditch, a few small trees and a fence. But he does nothing byt jab the brake and stick to the road for dear life.”

Head-on collisions are the deadliest of all accidents. Even at the relatively safe speed of thirty miles an hour each two cars hitting head-on have the same force as one car striking a stone wall at sixty. Rolling over in a ditch at thirty miles an hour, smashing through a billboard or through a fence practically anything except deep ditches and large trees - is a safer gamble than sticking to the road where the impact force will lie doubled by the speed of the other car.

But in the subconscious of every driver's mind is a fear of leaving the road. Normally, leaving the road is the ever-present hazard that has to be guarded against. Few drivers realize that occasionally it becomes the lesser of two hazards.

There are spots, such as bridges and embankments, where a driver can t take to the dirt. But large sections of roadside are emergency landing fields where a driver in a tight spot can dodge o big tree and hit a few small ones or even roll over in a farmer’s hayfield and greatly increase his and his passengers’ odds of surviving.

Police say a tree five or six inches in diameter is not an obstacle that has to he missed at all costs. But hit it squarely. If it catches a front corner of your car it may roll you over, but hit dead-centre it is more likely to snap off and you’ll live to hit another tree some other day.

But you won’t take to the dirt unless you have planted the idea firmly in • your mind and mentally practiced the

manoeuvre many times in advance. In an emergency your conscious mind will not react swiftly enough. Your decision must be at least partially formed in advance. Provincial Constable Jack Daley, of St. Thomas, told me how.

“Every time I see the havoc and injuries of a bad head-on smash I vow that if I ever have to make the choice I'll take to a woods, a plowed field, practically anything to avoid a headon-er.” Daley said. “Years ago I investigated an accident in which a fellow swerved from the road to avoid another car. He hit a telephone pole.

wrecked his car and was cut and badly shaken up. but not really seriously hurt. He was doing fifty: witnesses said the other car was doing seventy. He couldn’t possibly have lived if he had stayed on the road. Ever since, as 1 drive along, I keep an eye on the shoulder and ditch as well as the pavement. Unconsciously I'll be thinking' if I had to take to the dirt here there's two big trees up ahead I’d have to miss, but the others and that fence wouldn’t kill me . . . here's a narrow ditch with the far side lower, a car would hurdle it . . . and so on.

If you train yourself to think that way, you will react automatically in an emergency."

Automobile accidents have killed more than a million persons since that evening fifty-two years ago when a New York man stepped from a streetcar into the path of a car and became the automobile’s first victim. Yet we still think that in r serious accident we must either die or be saved by a mirad?.

“Miracles my eye!” says Norm Brioux, the stunt driver. “You just gotta know how." if