adrenaline skews perception
September 16, 2011 2:33 AM   Subscribe

Did I actually do anything useful in this car accident?

I was in a car accident in 2005. I was in the front passenger seat of a minivan. The driver was the only other person in the car. We were at a T intersection of a very busy local highway (morning rush hour). We had a blinking red, highway had a blinking yellow. Driver didn't realize that oncoming traffic wasn't going to stop, so she pulled out in front of a Ford F250 truck. We were probably going under 20 mph; the truck driver claimed he was only going about 40. We were hit on the driver's side, which forced our van to do a clockwise 360 spin. I grabbed the steering wheel first, which did nothing as far as I could tell. I then reached for the keys and turned off the car. The way I remember it, as soon as I turned off the car the spin stopped. However, when we did finally stop I was too shaken up to dial 911 properly, so I can't trust my memories.
For the actual question: Did turning off the engine actually do anything? Did it stop or slow the car, or was it just a coincidence? Looking for info on the physics of this kind of crash, and how cutting the power would affect the car's mobility, for lack of a better word.
I'll do my best to give more details if it seems necessary.
posted by anotherkate to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Turning off the keys may have helped, but not with the spin --- that part was coincidence. (Even if the wheels locked when the key was turned off, that wouldn't have stopped the spinning.) What turning off the key DID do was possibly prevent a car fire or the van driving into yet another vehicle.
posted by easily confused at 2:57 AM on September 16, 2011

If things happened as you remembered, easily confused is probably right. However it seems implausible to me that you could have reached over and shut the car off while it was spinning. A spin like that probably lasts a second or so, during which gravity is turned sideways and your physical bearings are all screwed up. It seems likely that your memory is warped by the traumatic experience, and you probably shut the car off AFTER the spin had already stopped.
posted by jon1270 at 3:18 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unlikely. That kind of lateral spin isn't going to be affected by the engine's motive force, one way or the other, because cars aren't designed to move that direction. You were basically skidding. Also, as it seems very unlikely that the driver was using the gas pedal at the time, turning off the car wasn't going to matter at all.

That being said, turning the engine off probably was useful, but not for the reasons you describe. Any time a vehicle has been in an accident, it's usually a good idea to shut it down as quickly as possible. You never know what kind of damage the vehicle may have sustained. Maybe there's damage to a fuel line. Maybe you've damaged the oil pan. Maybe the wheels have been so knocked out of alignment that further motion is just going to damage the car further. No, better to shut the thing down and take stock of the situation before anything bad happens.
posted by valkyryn at 5:49 AM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, you didn't do anything useful, in the event the driver needed to regain control quickly and move the vehicle. Similarly, grabbing the wheel wasn't a good thing to do (taking control from the driver).
posted by 6550 at 6:01 AM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you tried to grab the wheel and/or turn off the key while the vehicle was still under the control of another individual (i.e. you're still in the road) you created a situation that could have been MUCH worse.

think: you get hit, spin, and while the vehicle is still in motion you reach for the wheel and the keys to take control of the vehicle and turn the vehicle off only to then look over and see another vehicle coming at you that your driver could have avoided, but now cannot.

If you are not driving the vehicle don't take actions that can impeded the driver's ability to operate it.
posted by zombieApoc at 6:34 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think this is what 6550 was referring to, but keep in mind that turning a key to the "Off" position normally locks the steering wheel, creating an extremely dangerous situation. It would also cause you to lose brake assist in short order. It's nothing you would ever want to do, ever.
posted by ftm at 6:58 AM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a critical piece of information missing, which is the condition of the driver -- if they were disabled by the crash (which hit their side, after all) then I'd argue that yes, you did the right thing by disabling the car (and thereby making sure that the car wouldn't roll independently into another car, tree, off a bridge, whatever, post-crash). If the driver could still operate the car, then I agree with most of the above that you do more harm than good when you introduce a too-many-cooks problem in the middle of an accident.
posted by range at 7:19 AM on September 16, 2011

Your memories of this are probably a mess since the whole thing probably occurred in under a second and you were in total sensory overload. Turning off the key during the spin would have been a superhuman endeavor.

After that, turning off the key may have prevented a vehicle fire.

In a minor fender bender turning off the engine before you're out of traffic isn't such a hot idea for the reasons cited, but in the case you describe (being struck by a three ton truck doing 45 mph) I doubt the engine and steering wheel were worth much after that. When I hit the Expedition in my Volvo at 30 mph I was looking at the top of my radiator after I got the air bag out of my face.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:20 AM on September 16, 2011

Turning off the engine was a foolish thing to do.

Firstly, the physical act of turning the key will quite likely engage the steering lock. Not a good thing in those circumstances.

Secondly, with most reasonably modern cars, the brakes and steering are power-assisted by the engine. At the exact moment when motive power, steering, and braking were needed, you disabled them. And then there's the issue of you grabbing the controls.

Apologies for being blunt, but if had been me driving when that had happened, and you had behaved as you described, at the very least you'd have been the recipient of some extremely harsh language following the incident. With the adrenaline flowing from the accident, and if you'd been a bloke, you'd have quite probably ended up being thumped.
posted by veedubya at 8:28 AM on September 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was in a spin-out accident in a minivan -- I lost control at ~65mph on an expressway when I hit invisible water and hydroplaned. The only useful thing I was able to do was visually check that my passenger was also fully belted in. I have strong doubts you were able to do either of the things described during the spin. I think you're placing those memories within the spin rather than after, when they actually happened. Don't feel bad or defensive; it's a natural reaction to stress.
Viz., I was mugged a few weeks back and remembering the details in the precise right order is something I'm not 100% sure about.

In fact, I would wonder if you did either of these things at all. What does your friend say about the incident, if you ask without prompting (e.g. "how did that go for you?"). They just seem so unnatural for a passenger in this situation, barring perhaps a parent or authority figure relationship. But they may represent how you wanted to deal with the situation, and those desirous thoughts have, in time, manifested themselves as actual memories.

As to whether they did/would have done anything useful, not really -- except again perhaps making other things less likely to happen afterward. The spin is really going to be a factor of what kinetic momentum and mass the two vehicles had when they made contact. If you were hit by a bigger, faster vehicle, that's going to have a lot more influence on what your vehicle does than anything you might do once you're spinning. (I expect the measurable friction generated by tires is negligible -- you're effectively airborne.) Even low city speeds can be unexpectedly violent. I saw the aftermath of a T-bone type of accident at a stoplight a couple of blocks away from here. One pick-up hit another pick-up, basically. The hit vehicle was almost certainly the slower one, and it was spun facing back into the intersection (probably a 540 rather than a 180), lost its rear cap, and even though it had duallie wheels in back, they were completely folded under the chassis. And all that happened, probably, in about a second and a half.

I mean, watch these truck crashes (unless it bothers you) and try to imagine yourself reacting during them. There are actually physical limitations to human reaction time, and human factors engineering takes them into account. You might have something reach your visual perception with less than a second to react, but it takes a fraction of that second for your brain to process it and formulate an action -- and then there's the actual time it takes to move your body to execute. A driver with his hands on the wheel is going to be hard-pressed to react to a side hit. Someone on the other side of the car? You have to lean (against physics, probably), reach, grab, manipulate, and then have an effect. And you're claiming not just one, but two such actions mid-spin.

Sorry, I don't buy it. I don't think you did anything to help or hinder the accident. Your brain wanted to, but you couldn't have reacted in time, and anything you did was after the fact. Selective editing and fuzzy memories half a decade on, and some strange obsession with this accident's effects, has combined to make you force a conclusion. I'd almost recommend counseling, as this is way too long to be carrying this sort of baggage.

The accident happened. You were in it. Unless you're worried what you did may have caused someone injury or death, it's probably not something that further sorting through will benefit you.
posted by dhartung at 1:22 PM on September 16, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for commenting. To clarify - yes the driver was incapacitated; the main impact was on the driver side door. Also the minivan was totaled (as we found out later). Defensive driving was out of the question, it happened too quickly. I remember grabbing the wheel after impact, so most likely the steering column was too broken for it to have any effect anyway.
Of course in hindsight grabbing for the wheel or turning the car off may not have been the right thing to do, but I was definitely in shock. Luckily me and the driver of the van had pretty minor injuries; we were both wearing our seat belts. The truck driver had one of those big metal cow catcher fenders on his vehicle, so he got away with a broken headlight and not much else.
Thank you for all your comments. It's really fascinating to me to see how completely unreliable my memories are in this instance.
posted by anotherkate at 2:33 AM on September 17, 2011

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