What happens to you in a car crash?

An in-depth analysis of vehicle accidents shows what happens to your body during a crash.


Fact checked

According to the Department for Transport, there were 24,831 serious injuries in road traffic accidents reported to the police in 2017. Wearing a seat belt dramatically reduces your risk of dying, but it can’t protect you from all injuries.

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Car accidents are not straightforward

If you were to imagine what a car accident is like, you’d probably picture a single crash into another car or an immovable object like a pole or road barrier. In reality, crashes are not that straightforward, with dozens of variables like weather conditions, speed and direction of travel at play.

In a third of accidents studied, the car doesn’t just make one impact but several. This happens when there are multiple vehicles involved or when a vehicle rolls over. After deployment, airbags deflate, meaning subsequent collisions can cause more injuries than the initial contact.

Types of accident and injury

Researchers from Monash University in Australia examined 392 car accidents and published a report detailing exactly how people in a collision are injured. The five most common car crash types and resulting injuries are:

1. Rear-end

In a rear-end accident, one car slams into the back of another, possibly as a result of the rearmost driver not paying attention to upcoming traffic or driving too close.

In rear-end incidents, occupants suffer severe injuries to the chest, neck, head and spine, often as a result of whiplash (an extreme jerking of the neck forwards and backwards).

2. Side-impact

In a side-impact collision, one vehicle drives into the side of another. A collision at a 90-degree angle is often called a “T-bone” and transfers destructive amounts of energy into the other vehicle’s structure.

Side-impact accidents are hazardous even at speeds below 30MPH. The colliding deforms the side of the opposing car, causing door panels to shift and protrude into the cabin. This can inflict serious and critical injuries to a person’s chest, abdomen and organs.

Passengers on the opposite side might receive head and chest injuries from hitting the driver next to them or hitting the B-pillar (the column that the seat belt is attached to).

3. Head-on

Head-on collisions are where two vehicles traveling towards one another collide front first.

Drivers wearing seat belts will suffer severe chest and lower-leg injuries from contact with the restraint and dashboard/control pedals. Without a seat belt, occupants accelerate forwards into the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield (or in some cases, even the roof). This can result in grievous head and facial injuries. In addition to the above injuries, those not wearing a seat belt can also suffer limb injuries.

4. Veering off course on a straight road

Veering off course at a high speed is incredibly dangerous and can happen as drivers fiddle with the radio or heating controls or talk to a passenger. These crashes can result in a rollover or contact with trees, power poles and other objects.

In a rollover, passengers often receive serious and life-threatening injuries to the body. Occupants may even be thrown, with force, from the vehicle. After ejection from the car, a person may come into contact with another vehicle or object with catastrophic results.

5. Veering off course while turning

Drivers may lose control while turning a corner. This can happen as a result of speeding, weather conditions like aquaplaning on wet roads or driver distraction. Injuries vary depending on the environment and whether the vehicle rolls.

Long-term effects

Cuts, bruises and broken bones eventually heal. However, surviving car crash victims also face long and painful recovery periods. They may suffer PTSD and anxiety, as well as disabilities arising from the accident. They may also experience cognitive changes from head trauma, causing strained relationships, or financial hardship from missing or being unable to work.

Advice to drivers to stay safe

  • Pay attention when you’re driving and leave plenty of room in front of you
  • Stick to speed restrictions and follow the rules of the road
  • Never use your phone while driving
  • Never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Check your car’s safety ratings
  • Reevaluate your car insurance and health insurance every year
  • Always wear a seat belt

Bottom line

In a crash, wearing a seat belt can save your life and your limbs. A good car insurance policy can make sure you’re not on the line for massive medical bills or the cost of repairing your car. Protect yourself while driving by using both.

Frequently asked questions

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