6 Things Nobody Tells You About Surviving A Car Crash

surviving a car crash

TW: Car crash depiction, sensations, feelings, recollections

“You probably know at least three people who have been in a car crash. Maybe you knew someone who died in one. Here’s what nobody tells you about surviving a car crash.”

So how did my car crash happen? I worked six-day weeks for a month. On a rare day off, I was pulled in to cover a coworker who needed to cover someone else. Feeling pity for me (and worrying I would clock overtime), my bosses let me out a few hours early.

I power-walked to my car through the December night. A Saturday night to myself, and during Miami’s Art Basel! I narrowed my choice of plans to a movie at a downtown art house theatre. Not wanting to be late, I entered the express lane, which opened to two lanes before ebbing back to one.

This next part is about my car crash and what happened.

Just north of where the turnpike flows to the highway, a lane opened. I mistook it for an extra express lane and moved right. I actually exited the express lane, and at my speed, I risked rear-ending someone. I signaled left and turned, but I had reached the end of the fork. I hit the orange plastic poles separating the express lane and the main highway head-on. I swerved left. The car rebelled. I spun out. The headlights of the car behind me glared into my windshield. I desperately tried to return to stasis. The car swung like a hammer into the concrete wall of the highway. The stereo choked. The lights died. Face met airbag. Black.

Car crashes lie in the periphery of modern society. Drivers lose countless hours to the traffic of accident clean-up. The imagery appears in lyrics by musicians ranging from David Bowie and Soundgarden to My Chemical Romance and Icona Pop.

You probably know at least three people who have been in a car crash. Maybe you knew someone who died in one. Here’s what nobody tells you about surviving a car crash.

1. You’ll wonder how and why you survived.

There is no poetic license or hyperbole in saying my last thought before hitting the wall was “this is it.” My face emerged from the airbag as quickly as it entered, but my reaction to survival wasn’t joy or relief. I was confused. I was fully prepared to die. The sensation intensified as I struggled to open my caved-in front door and when I finally saw the shaved-off front half of my car. Every rescue worker who came to the scene heard me sputter through tears, asking how I survived.

Let it out. The adrenaline will subside and you will land in the present soon enough. When the anxiety of your “cheated death” overwhelms, take enough breaths to appreciate that you survived at all. If the chaotic randomness of the universe has handed you a second chance, you might as well use it to do something special.

This is only the perspective of a one-car, one passenger crash. I cannot begin to imagine the feelings I would have experienced if a passenger or other driver did not survive. (As I filed my insurance claim, the list of questions included something to the effect of “Were you transporting passengers for money at the time of the accident” and I shuddered at the idea of being liable for the injury or death of an Uber or Lyft customer).

2. You will crash that car again every time you close your eyes (for the first few days).

I got home from the wreckage, shakily entered the house, and went to use the bathroom. I sat on the toilet and felt myself careening into the steering wheel all over again. That night was a loop, like a detective watching security footage to identify a culprit. Or someone repeating the money shot of their favorite porn, just to keep that one feeling going for as long as possible.

I have no answer for this, other to rough it out. Whether you lose yourself more easily in work or in leisure, put enough in front of you to focus on until the flashbacks are behind you. The sensations may never fully go away, but they lessen in frequency and intensity.

3. You’ll never describe the smell of an airbag.

As my mother drove me home from work the night after, she asked, “What’s it like when the airbag goes off?” My brain must have softened the trauma by tossing out details because I couldn’t describe it. I remember a smell, but I was a bit too distracted by the bag itself to get all wine snob about the aroma. I settled on “the hot dust of turning on the heater on for the first time all year.” The sensation itself is like your older sibling getting a bit too into your pillow fight.

The sound of hitting a concrete wall at seventy miles per hour? That stays with you for months. Reel yourself back and focus on the polar opposite sound: the quiet breathing of your surviving self.

4. You’ll feel a need to show the wreckage to as many people as possible.

Are you trying to understand why you were allowed to live? Are you trying to acquire proof that people would care if you hadn’t lived? It’s like when you were a sick child, dropping your mature façade because your mother wanted to baby you and the babying comforted you. Now the world is your mother, and you desperately milk sympathy to process your pain. Don’t feel guilty about this. You’ve just come back from a place so many never come back from. Let people fawn over you. Be honest about your emotions. Give your loved ones a chance to care.

While it seems obvious, remember to ask before showing any pictures (even a picture of a particularly totalled car can be triggering). Let your confusion and fear take whatever shape it must to exit in a healthy manner. A photo collage, music, poetry, maybe even a listicle like this one!

5. You’ll feel like a fucking idiot.

“There is an entire life beyond the wheel that waits for you to forgive yourself and live again.”

You’ll grit your teeth as you relay the story to your insurance company. You’ll look at the bill for a rental (if your car insurance doesn’t have rental coverage) and your stomach will churn. Maybe you dissolve into the seat of the bus in embarrassment, or curse the helplessness of calling your loved one or a ridesharing app for the fourth time in one day. Every day without your car will feature the background noise of every “should have” your crash generated.

Your brain thinks generating shame will keep you vigilant and prevent another crash, but you deserve more than survival. At some point, the goal is not to survive, but to persevere and thrive, as you did before. There is, unfortunately, no way to go back far enough to turn the wheel just right or slow down enough to rewrite what happened. But there is an entire life beyond the wheel that waits for you to forgive yourself and live again.

Nobody tells you surviving a car crash changes you, from your driving habits to your perception of mortality. Whether you escaped unscathed or spent months in the hospital, reading these words means you survived. That’s something many in your situation can never say.

When you’re reliving being trapped in that car, looping through those memories again, remind yourself there’s an entire life to experience beyond the wheel.