Head-On Impacts

Head-On Impacts

On a sunny May afternoon, contractor Philip Swann, 48, drove west on two-lane Route 234 toward his home in Newburg, Md. Three employees were in the pickup truck with him, hitching a ride home. Swann was looking forward to dinner with his wife and three sons.

As Swann headed west, an eastbound Buick veered onto his side of the road. At the wheel was a 16-year-old girl driving on her learner's permit. She was trying to pass a minivan, but had failed to see Swann's pickup. The vehicles slammed into each other head-on. Swann's truck turned upside down and exploded in flames. Swann and one of his passengers were killed; the other two were severely burned. The teenager and her mother, who was also in the car, were badly injured.

A simple error on a clear day, by a novice driver on a straight stretch of road, cost two men their lives and left three young boys fatherless. Every day in America good drivers, obeying speed limits and the rules of the road, are nonetheless injured or killed by careless, drunk, inexperienced or reckless drivers.

So how do these roadway accidents happen? And is there anything you can do to avoid them?

Reader's Digest asked statisticians at the National Safety Council to analyze the nation's 41,611 traffic deaths in 1999 (the latest available data). They were asked to determine common ways that "good" drivers -- any of those found not at fault in an accident -- were killed. Here are the sobering facts.

The kind of accident that killed Philip Swann and his friend is a top killer of innocent drivers. Head-ons killed 42 percent of the good drivers in our survey. For those behind the wheel, death by an oncoming auto can be particularly devastating because of the laws of physics: the speed of both cars multiplies the violence of the collision.

And they are often the most sudden and unavoidable. "It doesn't appear that Swann had time to take evasive action. It was over in a second," says Maryland State Police Sgt. Randy Stephens, an accident investigator.

Surprisingly, our study shows that only six percent of head-on collisions were caused by drivers passing at inopportune times. Twenty percent occurred on curves where often a driver going too fast veered into the opposite lane. But the great majority, 63 percent, happened when drivers were steering straight. The crashes were likely caused by drivers who were distracted by other things (kids, changing a CD, talking on a cell phone), or who fell asleep, or nearly so, and drifted into oncoming traffic.

We found that more than half of these head-ons occurred in daylight and more than 80 percent of them in dry weather. "That tracks with our experience," says Stephens. "More fatal accidents of every type seem to occur in nice weather when drivers may relax their guard; in bad weather, the majority of drivers tend to be more cautious, more attentive."

Is there anything you can do to reduce the risk of meeting another car head-on? There is one measure that eliminates much of the risk. Forget the scenic route and head for the highway. Use major highways where traffic flow is separated by medians, and access is controlled by on- and off-ramps.

The most important conclusion to draw from the statistics compiled by the National Safety Council is this: stick to major highways whenever you can. An overwhelming 86 percent of traffic fatalities happen on side roads and byways. Only 14 percent occur on major highways, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Says driving-safety consultant Lawrence Lonero, of Northpoint Associates in Ontario, Canada: "My wife and I took a trip throughout the eastern and southeastern United States on the interstates and, amazing as it may seem, we never saw an accident in 5000 miles of driving."

And most obvious of all: wear your seat belt, all the time. Period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent in a car and 60 percent in a light truck.

But even with every safety precaution taken, says Gary Magwood, a driving educator and a contributor to Drivers.com, a driver-safety website, motorists must remember that the driver's seat is an inherently unsafe place to be. "Learn to use your eyes to look far down the road. Learn to spot problems before they happen," he says. "And remember that the safest vehicles on the best-designed highways on clear, sunny days are driven by fallible human beings who can crash into each other."

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It's wrong to categorily deem head-on collisions as inavoidable. There is a series of precautions and moves to help avoid it. These moves can either prevent the collision or prevent it's disasterous outcomes (death or severe injury).

It's clear that all passengers of the car needs be carefully fastened with seatbelts and appropriate harnessing for children and animals. The car should be mechanically taken care of: Tires, Tire pressure, Dampers and Brakes. The driver should avoid driving on two-lane roadways in rush hours and where possible always prefer a highway over such a road.

On a two-lane roadway, maximum safety should be maintained by several measures. The first of which is driver's concentration. There should be no distractions inside the car, no talking on the phone and alike. The driver needs to be seated in a good position, which will improve alertness, reduce reaction times and maintain greater safety in a collision. Breaks should be taken roughly every hour in safe locations, segregated from the road.

The second means is speed: The speed should fit the conditions and never exceed the limit. Speeding on two-lane roadways is dangerous. The third means is road position: The position should be to the far right, rather than in the center of the lane. This clears a few crucial extra feet between yourself and oncoming traffic, and it helps cars behind you to overtake you.

The road position should also be adjusted to maintain a safe following distance from the car ahead and preferably from the car behind too. Another important thing is to use the car's light, even in the brightest day light. The exta visibility is very efficient when head-on collisions are regarded.

The driver should be looking FAR ahead. As far as the road stretches on towards the horizon or near bend. Looking further can help identify an erratic driver hundreds of feet earlier. Once a speeding or erratic driver is detected in the flow of oncoming traffic, slow down and stick far right, even over the right hard shoulder.

In roads with a "soft" gravel shoulder, beware of a car that seemed to have drifted right. A major cause of head-on collisions is drivers who veer right to the dirt, panic and pull left all too sharply or even slide. When you see this, excecute the same plan I described above.

If an oncoming driver does swerve towards you, slam on the brakes to wipe off as much speed as possible. The braking will wipe off speed and virtually grant you more time to plan your moves, and allow the oncoming driver to return to his/her lane, as well as reduce the consequences of the collision, should it occur. For it to be effective, the driver must practice emergency braking so he can slam on the brakes at once without hesitation. Hang onto the brakes for as long as possible and, if there is no other choice, veer right at the last possible moment.

Two-lane roadways are designed with enough room for at least four cars, not including a hard shoulder or a gravel shoulder, so it's fairly possible that you will manage to veer around the oncoming driver. This could be done if you practice avoidance braking in a defensive driving course and learn to evert your eyes from the oncoming car towards the escape route.

Even if there is not enough space, going right and off of the road is likely to result in a much sympethetic crash relative to hitting the oncoming car and, if you managed to wipe off some speed and if you drive a reasonably safe car, it shouldn't be a hard hit.

It's important not to try and veer left as this can lead to hitting another oncoming car, a car overtaken by the car in front of you, or even by the oncoming driver as he manages to get back to his lane.

- Avoid two-lane roadways where possible

- Maintain the car for maximum braking force in the hour of need

- Maintain maximum concentration and take frequent breaks on two lane roadways

- Run with the lights on whenever driving in a two-lane roadway

- Stick to the far right end of the lane

- Maintain following distances from cars in front and behind
- Look far ahead and identify erratic drivers or drivers who have veered right and might make a panic swerve towards you.

- In such an event, slow down and move right over the hard shoulder

- If the car does swerve at you, brake as hard as possible at once and hang on to the brakes for as long as possible, up to the last possible second.

- If the driver in front does not move back into his lane, veer right around it or even off of the road to avoid hitting an oncoming driver. The key is to shake your head and shift your focus from the oncoming car to the escape route to the right. Avoid veering left.

I was in my own northbound lane on a two lane highway road slowly coming up behind two state snow plows. I was traveling at about 40 miles per hour so wouldn't have excessive speed to bleed off or too high of speed and impact the snow plow. I remember being very alert because of light snow just starting. I woke up in a hospital from a head on collision with a loaded straight truck. They took lots of pictures of my truck and the truck behind me who's trailer also was clipped. The truck that hit us was also our lane. The impact forced my truck cab and sleeper to turn 90 degrees away from the chassis. There are gouges in his lane. The left steering tire is gone from the rim on his truck and the rim itself is ground off. The left steering tire on my truck although flat is still on the rim. How could it leave gouges that look suspiciously like they were made by a rim.

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