Car Crashes: Preparation and Response

Dietrich Easter

car crash

Are you wondering what to do if you drive up on a car wreck? People drive fast in the summer. Cars slide in the winter. Some drivers are inebriated. Others are distracted by their phones. Sadly, car collisions happen. How should we approach and respond to a car accident? 

In this article, we'll discuss car crashes from several angles. What should you do if you witness a crash? How should you prevent them? If you're curious to hear more on the first aid side, read our article on building a vehicle first aid kit.


Three Phases of a Car Crash 

For this article’s purpose, we’ll discuss three phases of a car crash. There's the pre-crash phase - when you're just driving around without a care. There's the crash phase - when that truck comes out of nowhere and strikes your vehicle. And finally, you have the post-crash phase, when you assess victims, injury, damage, and perform the treatment. 


Here are the three phases of a car crash:  

  1. Pre-crash 

  2. Crash 

  3. Post-crash 


This article will focus on 1 and 3, the two areas where you have the most control. Unfortunately, there's little you can do during phase two, the crash itself. As your vehicle flips through the air or rolls in a ditch, your mind will struggle to do anything meaningful. However, we'll still talk about it so you understand what to expect and how to prepare. 


Pre-Crash: How Can We Prevent Car Accidents? 

The best thing, I think we can all agree, is preventing a crash in the first place. I'd argue that this is the most important, even more so than the rescue phase. 

It's unfortunate, but preparation doesn't always get the spotlight. For some reason, we're more interested in high-speed heroics. For example, few people care when a firefighter discovers a faulty fire alarm during a routine inspection - even though, potentially, he could be saving the lives of an entire apartment by correcting that small issue. However, we get excited about people running into burning buildings to save their families or pets. 

The second situation is more exciting and the stuff that makes for good TV shows, but it's not the only form of bravery or heroism. Perhaps someone could have prevented the fire in the first place. 

We should probably place more focus on preparation. Sure, it's not as "cool," but it's just as important. 


Here are several ways to prepare for and prevent a car accident:  

  1. Start fostering better habits. If someone tends to text, drive too fast, or run red lights, they should consider making some changes. Eventually, it will catch up to them. Thinking "it won't happen to me" is common. But, as a paramedic, I can say without hesitation: "it won't happen to me" happens to people every single day. 

  2. Keep your car maintained. Ensure that your car's brakes and tires work properly. It's always smart to double-check the vehicle as often as you can. 

  3. Store a vehicle first aid kit. Just building a first aid kit will serve as a reminder that accidents can happen and will help you remember to drive safer. 

  4. Don't take risks. Careful in the rain, the ice, the snow, and the fog. These really are risky conditions. However, also keep your eyes open in good weather when others let their guard down.


Let's talk about the crash phase and what to expect.


Crash-Phase: What a Car Accident Does to Your Body

During the crash, there's some value in understanding how energy transfers to the body and how different crashes can cause different injuries. Of course, there is no way to predict injuries with 100 percent accuracy. However, some patterns can help guide us. 

In general, car accidents are categorized based on how a vehicle impacts another vehicle, a nearby object, or even the ground. Also, you should know that the faster the vehicles are traveling, the more deadly and dangerous a car accident will be. All that speed is energy, and it will be released upon impact. 


Here are several crash patterns and associated injuries: 

  • Head on. Where two or one vehicle makes a frontal impact after a forward motion. The head tends to snap forward, and this is where airbags come into play. Look for head injuries, neck, and hips—also as seat belt injuries from the body against the belt. 

  • Broadside. The main impact areas are the driver or passenger side or driver side. Again, the head is always vulnerable but also look for hip injuries and chest injuries. 

  • Rear-end impact. Depending on the situation, this can be one of the less dangerous impacts. However, there can still be head injuries, neck injuries, and spinal issues. If the impact was hard enough, any injury is possible. 

  • Rollover. Often categorized as the most dangerous, as the impacts are coming from all sides. Be ready for anything. Also, if the vehicle is still on its side or top, the rescuer should be very careful. Only approach the vehicle if it's stable. Usually, this is one of the fire department's jobs when they arrive - stabilization and extrication. 


Now let's talk about the post-crash phase, treating injuries, and the best approach.  


Post-Crash Phase: What to Do After a Car Accident

What should you do if you drive by a crash? Let's talk about several scenarios here. One thing to keep in mind: there are a lot of nuances to this discussion. What we discuss in this section is only some standard guidelines and may not apply to all situations, people, or laws. 

Let's get this one out of the way: if you drive by a crash, should you stop to help? This one might seem like a no-brainer for some people who think you should always stop and help. However, others might think you should never stop because you'll "get in the way" or "cause more problems." 

What's the answer? There is truth in both choices. However, as always, the best decision lies somewhere in the middle. 


Should You Stop to Help if You See a Car Crash?

If you witness a crash in front of you, there's nothing wrong with stopping and checking on the victims if it's safe to do so. What is safe? If it's a six-lane highway in the middle of a thunderstorm, you'll have to decide if stopping is worth the risk. Will you become another victim? We want to avoid this at all costs. Also, if it looks like someone is bleeding or unconscious, there might be more urgency than if someone is walking around.

If you see a wreck, but police or fire is already on scene. In this case, it's often best to let the police and fire department do their job. However, there may even be a nuance to this. In some cases, first responders might want help from trained hands. I've enlisted numerous bystanders at various times (those who volunteered to help) to perform CPR or hold equipment or go ask someone something. 

As a paramedic, I've never been irritated by someone asking, "is there any way I can help?" As long as they are respectful and have themselves under control, there have been many times I'm thankful for bystanders who stopped to help out. 

At the end of the day, you'll have to decide whether to stop and help or not. If you're a trained responder, you might be more likely to help. In any case, use common sense. Also, asking the question, "what would I want someone to do for me if I was in a car crash?" Would you want people to just drive by? At the very least, calling 911 to ensure an ambulance is on the way is important. 

Watch this video explaining what to do if you witness a car crash. It will provide more context. 


Car Crash First Aid 

This has only been a discussion about how to approach and handle a car accident on a strategic level; however, you should spend time training in the actual skills needed to help someone. I'll leave several links below to articles that teach you first aid techniques. But there is no substitute for hands-on training. 

Useful first aid guides for car crashes: 


These three skills can save a life. Make sure you know them. They will make you a more effective responder when you need to help someone in a car crash. 


Final Note: The Myth of 'Accidents'

What's an accident? If someone was texting and driving, and they proceeded to cause a crash, is that really an accident?  

Often, an accident is understood as "no one is at fault" - as in, there is nobody to blame. If someone was responsible, then that's not a true accident. They may not have intended the outcome, but if someone engages in risky behavior and then cries "accident" when something bad happens, this shows recklessness. 

The point of this thought exercise is to realize that true accidents, where no party was truly responsible, are usually quite rare. Instead of passing off all car crashes as "accidents," we should consider how we could have prevented the outcome. 

For example, the person texting and driving can put their phone away next time. Or the person speeding can slow down. This will prevent future "accidents" from occurring. Paramedic instructors often say, "there are no accidents." There's certainly an element of truth to this.