Walking away from a car crash

What can happen to the body in an automobile collison
The scene of the author's recent accident

(author's own photo)

I didn’t see it coming, but when the other Honda crashed into the passenger side of my Civic it felt like an explosion inside my car.

On impact I saw only blackness as my body jerked right, then left. The airbags deployed, slamming into my face and sternum as the seatbelt clenched across my chest and my lap. My ears rang. When they cleared up, I could hear a hissing sound as the bags deflated. What had happened? Was I badly hurt? I didn’t know.

I started to dial 911, then saw that the paramedics were already there. They had stopped nearby to eat dinner when they heard the screech and crunch of my crash.

Thankfully no one was seriously injured in this accident, which took place last week at the intersection of North Druid Hills and LaVista Roads. I ended up with soreness and bruising on my nose, hip, lower abdomen, ankle, and knee, as well as some burns on my chin and neck from the airbag. My chest hurt the most, and might have sustained a small fracture.

Some post-accident problems seem obvious: muscle strain, whiplash, and the like. But DROF? More on that—and the other things that can happen to the human body during this kind of significant but non-life-threatening car crash—with the help of Dr. Steven Rippentrop of Family Practice of Atlanta in Decatur:

— The small muscle groups that stabilize the spine are often the ones that get injured in a car accident. These muscles normally have lots of time to react—“Oh, here comes the Frisbee. I’d better catch it or get out of the way”—but are forced to do their job in a split-second during an accident. They contract quickly to brace your body against the force of the crash. This quick and sudden contraction can cause soreness after you emerge from the car, and for days afterward.

— If you’ve been struck by the steering wheel or the airbags, the doctor is likely to consider the “DROF” sign. This is a remnant of an older era, when there were no airbags. A victim’s chest might hit the steering wheel and, if the crash was fairly serious, end up with the car’s make imprinted on the skin (“DROF” = FORD). Though doctors don’t see this much anymore, they do examine a patient’s skin to determine the force generated during the crash and the focus on certain impact points. In a crash like mine, the rib cage absorbs much of the impact.

— Anytime a broken bone is present, a “step-off” is possible. When your chest strikes a steering wheel or airbags, the bones in front of your heart protect that important organ, compressing and flexing, then spreading back apart after the impact. In the process, bones can crack or end up misaligned. On the head or the chest, you can sometimes feel that misalignment by touch; your fingers will sense a small step or cliff in the bone. This kind of fracture typically stems from higher-velocity impact and increases the likelihood of internal injuries.

— If you walked away from your accident like I did, a doctor later might double-check to make sure you haven’t broken any bones in your legs or hips. He will likely hit his palm against the bottom of your foot to see if significant pain reverberates from that point upward. If it does, there could be some damage or breakage in those areas.

— Some doctors will use the SCAT2, or Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 2, to evaluate whether a patient has a concussion. It’s the same test used in athletes ten years and older. The doctor may look for symptoms like a loss of consciousness, neck pain, nausea, blurred vision, and difficulty remembering. The physician may also ask a question like, “Where are we now?” to test memory function. The third step in the test is to test the patient’s balance. The velocity of the accident plays a role in the severity, but even low speeds can result in a concussion.