Darwin's Theories Blog

New Theories for a New Time

Red Lights Will Never Be The Same, Part 1

March 31 dawned foggily. The weather, not me. Well, maybe both. I drive country roads. At about 0830 local time, I was sitting in the southbound lane, stopped for a red light, when I heard a horn blaring, looked up, saw an 18 wheeler going northbound through the red. Think to myself "he knows he can't stop so he's warning everybody. Nice try" as I see a Pontiac going east on the green, "He's going to hit", crash almost-head-on into the side of the transport. Rig's momentum spins the front of the Pontiac around (oops, toward me). Pontiac's right rear also hits the truck, it keeps on spinning around, I think "he's going to hit m...", and then I am watching my airbags deflate and wondering what condition the guy in the Pontiac is. When I take a deep breath and get out, I see the rig in the ditch just north of me, and passersby gathering. 911 is called.

Police & ambulance arrive in about ten minutes. To make a long story short, the guy in the Pontiac was aware enough to ask the group to phone his wife.  He was (much later) taken to hospital and released the same day.

The truck driver walked away, but I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. Although I'm grateful that he hit the ditch, not me. A Bell Telephone wiring station that he ran over was about the thickness of a magazine, and if he'd gone 20 degrees left instead of right, my car wouldn't have been much thicker.  I couldn't have backed up even if I'd had time to think, as there was a line of cars behind me. And, if I'd tried to make a quick getaway by making a right turn, the Pontiac would have hit full-on on my door, and I wouldn't be here. There was nothing, nothing I could have done, but just sit and watch it happen. So very lucky to be alive, to be able to write this, to hear my family and friends' voices.

Where are the pictures to show my web readers? I hate to admit it, but March 31 is the one day this year when I forgot my camera. *Sigh*.

The GM car salesman we've been buying from for years was a bit surprised to see me, later that day. We had just picked up my wife's new (slightly used) van from him on Saturday! Here is it Monday afternoon and I'm coming in to see him, driving a Toyota. Initially I guess he was worried that one of those inevitable things that always go wrong with used cars, had. Then he wanted to hear the whole story. Then, ultimately, of course he sold me another car (although that was just a few days ago). Because my car - with a little bump to the front - was toast.

Why was my car a write-off, when really only the front bumper was broken? Airbags deploy very quickly.  They actually explode out through the otherwise-solid-looking dashboard plastic, so once the airbags deploy, the dashboard is destroyed. On this car, the passenger airbag cover also destroys the windshield. The cost of two airbag units (government certified), new dashboard and steering wheel plastic, windshield, and labor to basically gut and rebuild the whole front interior, exceeds the replacement cost, unless it's a luxury car or a very recent model (I'm afraid my 2004 SunFire was neither). Welcome to the disposable society. For the insurance industry, writing the car off is a no-brainer. Which is about right, as I might explain in Part 2.
Reply from Lak at 2008-04-17 22:07:48.89

Glad you are ok, Ian.

GMs, I think, are more disposable than other cars.  My (Toyota)'s airbag is in the steering wheel and just above the glove compartment. Both can be replaced cheaply.

Talk to your transportation department about having longer yellows so that heavy rigs have a chance of stopping, even on a wet road.

Reply from Ian Darwin at 2008-04-18 15:41:51.059

Right, I wasn't clear enough there; the driver's airbag is in the steering column. It was a cold day so I had the windows up, there is thus a strong chance of door-frame, window or other misalignment caused by the explosive bag deployment (my ears hurt for a day or two from that too).  Remembering Newton's laws of motion; all cars with steering wheel airbags will have a partially-compressed steering wheel as an "equal and opposite" reaction to the deployment, just as if the driver had hit it at speed.

Did some more reading; here's one on why you should not repair your own airbags :-) and "Airbag benefits and costs". The latter states: "The main component of the airbag system is a strong fabric bag folded and stored in a module on the steering column for the driver, and in the dashboard for the passenger. When onboard sensors detect a frontal crash of severity exceeding a set threshold, equivalent to a delta-v of about 10 mph, detonators deploy the airbag. High pressure chemically-produced gasses force the bag out of the module and inflate it sufficiently rapidly that it is in place in front of the occupant before the occupant has had time to move forward appreciably in response to the crash forces." Since I was sitting back in my seat and the car not moving, that's why the airbag didn't get me in the face.