Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Overlooked safety feature shields T-bone crash victims, including one close to me

The two-ton SUV struck my Honda Civic broadside, squarely on the driver’s door.

The little blue sedan flew 50 feet across the intersection. The driver ended up in the passenger seat, unconscious.

The Honda was a nice 2007 model I had bought just a few months before it was destroyed in March. The insurance man was appalled when he saw the wreckage. He phoned me from the junkyard.

The alarm in his voice, verging on dread, was almost unprofessional. “Were you the driver?”

No. My son Cameron was driving. But don’t worry, I told the GEICO guy, he’ll be fine.

Cameron was saved by an obscure safety feature that had not crossed my mind when I went car shopping last year: the side curtain airbag.

He woke up in the passenger seat that night with his right pelvis cracked in three places. When the blow from his left shoved him violently to the right, it might have been his seat-belt buckle that got in the way. (Did he unbuckle it after the crash and clamber into the other seat? He doesn’t remember.)

He’ll be using a wheelchair and crutches for three months. That’s tough, but that’s OK. Because here’s what really matters:

The GMC Envoy that pushed both left-side doors into the car – smashing the glass a few inches from his head – never scratched Cameron’s face or disturbed his precious brain.

My guts churned when I saw the wrecked car. The expended airbags hung limp like flimsy pink window shades. But they had done their job.

Unlike front airbags, standard safety equipment since 1999, side airbags are not required by the government. But carmakers use them more and more each year (along with improved door and frame construction) to meet side-impact safety standards.

The bags inflate less than 20 milliseconds after impact, descending from above the door to cushion the head and shoulders. In some models they remain inflated for a few seconds to provide continuing protection if the car or SUV overturns.

“Driving down the road, you don’t really think about side airbags,” says Kim Stewart, senior editor at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Washington-based research and advocacy group funded by auto insurers. “But if you get T-boned, it matters. It makes a big difference in being able to walk away from a crash.”

Lives saved

Side airbags have saved thousands of lives – an estimated 2,252 deaths prevented through 2012, according to the most recent estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For side-impact crashes, which are blamed for about one-third of all vehicle deaths, an IIHS study found that side airbags reduce the chance of death by a stunning 37 percent for cars – and by 52 percent for SUVs (which are more likely to roll over).

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is known for its crash-dummy tests. You can watch a pretty good video simulation of Cameron’s crash online. A blue 2006 Civic sedan, identical to our 2007 model, is struck almost as hard in the IIHS test – and knocked about half as far.

A pretend pickup truck weighing 3,300 pounds hits the driver door at 31 miles per hour. A slo-mo camera shows the dummy driver’s head cradled briefly in the billowing airbag, before everything lurches to the right.

“Our crash is designed to replicate a car being hit by a high-riding SUV or pickup truck,” Stewart says. “When that happens in the real world, with a person in a car that’s low-riding – if they don’t have a side airbag – there’s a greater risk of their head hitting the hood of the striking vehicle. We’ve had some crash tests where the dummy’s head actually hit the hood of the pickup.”

The real-world crash was more devastating than the video version. The SUV weighed about 4,500 pounds and, according to the police report, was going 35 mph. The damage was more extensive: the roof buckled, the windshield broken, the left front and rear doors rammed farther inward.

But the driver, my son, was back at work two weeks later – with his wheelchair and crutches, and later with a gold 2008 Civic. He’ll be fine.

A fork in the road

I wrote my first Road Worrier column 13 years ago. This is my last one.

Donna LeFebvre, my wife, who is retired from the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, and I have won Fulbright Scholar grants to teach in Montenegro. I have lots of homework to do before we head to Podgorica in January.

As a News & Observer reporter and editor since 1976, I’ve been privileged to associate with hundreds of passionate print and online journalists, and with other dedicated co-workers who kept the bills paid, presses rolling and pixels glowing. I have been fortunate to communicate with thousands of readers as we helped each other appreciate our part of this world.

Lucky me.

Shopping for safety

In the market for a new or used car? At the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website ( you can see which cars – new and old – scored best for safety in crash tests.

Look up that car you’re interested in to see which safety features it has: Side airbags are available in most cars sold after 2008, and in nearly all new cars today.

“If you’re looking for a used car, you definitely want to get a vehicle with side airbags,” says Kim Stewart of IIHS.

Another feature to shop for, Stewart says, is electronic stability control. “It significantly reduces the chance that a vehicle will roll over, that a driver will lose control on wet roads.”