Imagine someone throws a ball to you from across the room. You catch it. Easy, right? Now imagine you’re at a batting range where the balls are thrown in excess of 30 mph. Can you catch that? Would you want to? How about a textbook at that speed? Or a handbag? What about your infant, toddler or teenager? Don’t laugh. Whatever is not tied down will become a missile inside your car if you are involved in a car accident. And that includes you.
Items and people that are restrained move with the car – away from the point of impact. Items and people that are not restrained move toward the impact, and keep moving until the energy from the collision is dissipated. That can’t be good. Think of the most incredible, most frightening amusement park ride – without any amusement.
A car accident takes only seconds from start to stop. Count 1-hippopotamus, 2- hippopotamus, 3- hippopotamus, 4- hippopotamus, 5- hippopotamus. Okay, here’s what happened while you counted. The three stages of an impact:
Stage one is vehicle hits vehicle. Since we know that you are a good driver who would never cause an accident, we’ll assume that another vehicle came out of nowhere and struck yours.
Stage two is you hitting something. Immediately upon the first point of impact, you and everyone else in the car smash into each other and into the hard interior of your vehicle. Think you could brace yourself? Remember how hard it was to imagine catching a ball at 30 mph?
Stage three is you hitting, well, you. Don’t get queasy on me now. Stage three is when your internal organs collide with your hard skeletal structure. Ick.
Now you have two options, although you don’t actually get to choose. You get to go up, or you get to go down.
Up may sound good to some. Those would be the people who insist that being thrown clear of an accident is the best way to live. They apparently don’t know that being thrown clear increases the extent and severity of your injuries.
Up is bad.
Up means that your chest and stomach hit the steering wheel, usually contorting that hard circle into a unique form of modern art.
Up means that your head strikes the windshield. If you are going less than 12 mph, you may only cause the windshield to spider. But when was the last time you went 12 mph? Backing out of your driveway? So, once your head strikes the windshield, the windshield is going to break. Ouch. If you don’t completely clear the windshield and its debris, double ouch. If you do go through, you can be dragged or crushed by any of the vehicles involved in the accident, including yours. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Remember, the energy of a crash needs to dissipate – and it may dissipate right over your body.
Well, what about down? Down seems good. Down seems safe. On TV, people fling themselves to the ground to escape fire, flying objects and random gunfire.
Guess what? Down is bad.
Down means that your legs and knees smash into the very solid surface under the dash.
Down means that your chest and throat slam into the steering wheel.
Down means you leave some teeth imbedded in the steering column.
Down means being pinned beneath the steering wheel in that tiny space where your feet go. Pinned in a heap with your face beneath the gas pedal and the brake pedal in your mouth. Pinned until the jaws of life can peel the car off of you like a big tuna fish can. And I mean tuna fish – no sardines here – you may feel like a sardine squished into a can with no room to breath but don’t forget about the third impact in a crash. Your internal organs have all sloshed around and mangled into, well, tuna fish.
Down means broken kneecaps, broken ribs, internal injuries, trauma to your throat, and a very expensive relationship with your dentist.
But, for you optimists, there will probably be none of the severe brain injuries that result from going “up”. Of course, down generally means that you’ll be conscious and more cognizant of your pain.
So, is it hard to imagine why there is a death attributed to a car accident every 13 minutes? Or why a person is injured every 9 seconds? Or why there are mandatory seat belt laws? Do you think that you have a right to choose whether to wear your seat belt? Not if I have to scrape you off the hood of your car or pry you from under the dash. Not if my family members have to witness the sight of your child catapulting through the windshield.
Eighty percent of accidents happen at speeds of less than 40 mph and within 25 miles of your home. Can you catch a ball thrown at 40 mph? Would you like to be a ball thrown at 40 mph? Forty mph is the same as a drop from a five story building. So, choose your poison. Do you want to be dropped from the 4th floor? The 3rd? Or would you rather stay on the 5th floor until someone shows up with a ladder? You can wait with me. I’ll be sitting there having coffee because I know I can’t fly, and deceleration trauma (the fourth, and final, stage of an impact) is not pretty.
There is a story – probably an urban myth but potent just the same – that tells of a traffic stop for speeding. When the officer discovered that the driver had not seat belted his child, he wrote the father a ticket. After angrily strapping his son in and crumpling the ticket in his fist, the father drove off. A few minutes later, the same officer arrived at the scene of a fatal accident. The father was dead and the now bloody ticket was on the floor – but the little boy was alive because the officer had forced the man to obey the law, and protect his child.
It comes down to this. Modern cars are made to protect lives. The passenger area is fortified to withstand crashes. If you do not secure yourself within that area, you will be severely injured or die. If you do not secure your children, you will maim or kill them.
Seat belts and safety seats prevent and lessen injuries. If you wear a seat belt, you will go neither up nor down. You will be exercising a third option. This one is a choice. You will not collide with the interior of the car or with other passengers in the car. You will not be ejected or thrown about the interior like a rag doll.
Seat belts reduce injury by spreading the force of the impact over the strong areas of the body. They keep the wearer in sync with the motion of the car, the protective shell, rather than submitting the person to a rather harsh lesson in physics. And they position the wearer properly for the supplemental protection – the airbag.
It’s easy to wear your seat belt. It’s smart to wear your seat belt. Just do it.
Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.
She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com
Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts.