If you’re going to get into an accident, do it on the way to your doctor’s office

There’s a medical office across the street from my workplace. About an hour ago, there was a major accident on the street right between us. I was standing near our reception desk when it happened, so I heard it but didn’t see it. As the receptionist called 911, I ran outside to see if I could help.

There was a minivan on our side of the street, and the driver looked pretty shaken but had already gotten out. He wasn’t in a state of mind to answer when I came over, but seemed largely okay. He leaned back against his seat, so I crossed to the other side, where a senior couple had the left-front end of their car pretty much smashed right in. The airbags had gone off, and they were very shaken up, but coherent. I got the driver to turn the key to make sure the engine was disengaged, and the lady in the passenger seat said that they were going to see Dr. Hicks. So I ran over to the office and the people outside went to get the doctor. Meanwhile, another guy was going through the same motions with the driver, having come over just as I was leaving. The horn had gone off, but we obviously couldn’t move the people out of the car. That’s when I noticed the trail of blood coming from behind the driver’s left ear. It looked as if the seatbelt might have cut him when it tightened up on impact.

Doctors came out of the medical office and police cars started to arrive at that point, so the other guy and I stepped back and were comparing notes; I guess that’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. That’s about when I realized that I wasn’t wearing a jacket in -8 weather. So as the fourth police car came up the street, I returned to my office.

I’m not sure how serious the injuries were, but things are getting cleaned up now. I don’t know how the accident occurred…where the vehicles ended up doesn’t make sense for where the damage is. But hey, that’s not my area of expertise.

I’ve seen accidents before. When I was younger, my dad and I were in a trail of cars on the highway and one happened in front of us. But my job was to just stay in the car and not get in the way. I’ve never been one of the first people on the scene, and I have to say how glad I am that no one died. Chalk another one up for seatbelts and airbags, which I fully believe saved the lives of the older couple.

Coworkers who came back from lunch in the aftermath were asking about it just now, and one mentioned her fear of being pinned behind an airbag. It seems there’s a slight misconception, so I’ll take the opportunity to clear it up, with a little help from How Stuff Works. I’m not going to go into detail (the link does an excellent job), but suffice to say that an airbag inflates explosively, and instantly deflates afterward. The bag isn’t capable of holding air for very long…just enough to counter some of your forward momentum.

The second thing that was wondered is what the powdery substance released by the airbag is. Turns out that that’s cornstarch or talcum powder, which is used to keep the airbag lubricated in containment. So it’s of minimal danger to an asthmatic person.

This discussion got me telling the group about the newer airbag technologies: side airbags, knee airbags, and curtain airbags. These ones aren’t quite the same as the front airbags, because their jobs are different. They aren’t so much countering momentum as providing cushions in case part of your body moves toward the door…or the door moves toward you. In many cases, these cushions actually stay inflated for a period of time to protect you. In fact, the curtain airbags in some vehicles have sensors that detect rollovers, and will keep the airbags inflated until sideways motion stops.

This is, as far as I’m concerned, some of the coolest automotive technology I’ve seen in recent years. Far better than the hybrid powertrains, fold-into-the-floor seats, and six-speed transmissions that I see on a regular basis. And I don’t just think that today…I’ve always felt that way. Today’s experience just reinforces my feelings on the subject.

Front airbags have been required equipment since 1988, and a lot of manufacturers are making the various side airbags available as options. But many owners choose not to take on the additional costs. After all, you hope you’ll never need to use them. And if you drive alertly and intelligently, you probably won’t have to.

But sometimes, it doesn’t matter how well you drive. A few years ago, I was nearly in a major accident when a driver ran a red light at full speed, barely missing me. No airbags in my old Civic. I could be the best driver in the world–I’m not, as evidenced by last week’s speeding ticket–but even if I were, I couldn’t predict what every other driver will do.

If your next car offers the option of additional airbags, please…just check the box marked “Yes”. They could prevent a broken knee or a split skull. For many people, they already have.

And please…drive safely. I can’t imagine if someone had died just now…hopefully I’ll never have to.



  1. I’m really glad airbag technology has improved greatly since it first came out. When I was in High School my friend was killed when her air bag was deployed in a minor fender bender. She was only 5′ and 90 lbs and a post mortem revealed that her heart stopped when the bag hit her chest.
    As far as I know, today’s air bags have been redesigned to be sutiable for smaller framed people. My car came with a warning not to allow children in the passenger seat without dissengaging the air bag first.

  2. Another interesting thing to note: My brother was in an accident a few years ago and his asthma did give him grief after the airbag went off. So, I guess regardless of what the substance is, it can pose some problems apparently… I guess your lungs can always react a bit no matter what the substance is that you breathe in. In particular, I think back to the couple of times where I’ve made powdered drink beverages of some sort and start coughing from breathing the stuff accidentally…

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