‘I feel disorientated’: replicating a real car crash to research rescue techniques

·3 min read

“Linda, Keep looking forward, OK? I’m just making some space and I’ll be coming into the front of the vehicle with you just as soon as I can,” booms a voice in my left ear. “Are you bleeding anywhere?”

I struggle to formulate an answer, I’m so distracted by everything else that’s happening around me: firefighters approaching with hydraulic equipment; the rip of adhesive film as they tape up my window; the swing of the air freshener attached to my rear view mirror.

I’m not bleeding, but given we’re trying to replicate a real-life car crash, I say that I am – from my legs. Also, that I have a sharp pain in my chest.

Stuck to my forehead and sternum are motion sensors recording the movements of my head and neck, as I am slowly extricated from the vehicle. Similar data is being used to understand precisely how the neck region of someone of my particular size and body shape moves as they’re taken out of a vehicle in various scenarios, to identify safer ways of moving them if they can’t move themselves.

Now, the firefighter, who tells me his name is Les, is gently cradling my head and neck, while asking me to open my mouth and stick out my tongue. He puts a protective bag over the steering wheel and removes the keys from the ignition. With his hand on my chest, he asks me to take a deep breath, while his colleagues prise open the car door.

Calm and reassuring as he is, I feel confused, disoriented, and worried about what will happen next. Had I really just been in a collision, in pain, or worried about my passengers, I imagine the situation would be terrifying.

Roughly 40% of car crash victims remain trapped in their vehicles after the collision, either because they’re physically entangled in the wreckage, too injured to move, or have been advised not to for fear they may cause themselves further injury.

Dr Tim Nutbeam, an NHS emergency consultant who researches how entrapment affects patients’ outcomes, says many decline to be interviewed about their ordeal. “For all the patients we have spoken to, it had been a very stressful and difficult life event.”

The desire to minimise movement also means I’m not allowed to climb out of the vehicle, even though the door next to me is now wide open. Les tells me this is the emergency plan – the exit they’ll use if my situation deteriorates. But the conventional route out involves cutting away the roof to improve access, and then lifting the casualty out this way – sometimes referred to as an “A plan extrication”.

My rescuer urges me to keep looking forwards, as I hear the sound of a saw chewing through metal near the back of the car, and the crunch of plastic, as “jaws of life” slice through the roof behind my head. Suddenly, there’s daylight, and a “spinal board” is gently sliding down my back. Then, my seat is reclined, and I’m being lifted into the air, by who knows how many men. I imagine I’m on the roof of the car, but when I’m finally lowered down and take a look, I see it was actually the boot.

I check my watch: the whole process has taken 29 minutes. A long time, had I really sustained life-threatening injuries.

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