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Dec. 12, 2013, Toronto – We’ve all been to car accidents, right? I’m certain that most of you have more direct experience at accident scenes than I do, given that my career was mostly on the staff side of the organization. Direct experience comes in various forms, of course, and no two car accidents – sorry, I mean, motor vehicle collisions – are exactly the same. I’d like to share my most recent direct MVC experience.

December 12, 2013 
By Peter Sells

Dec. 12, 2013, Toronto – We’ve all been to car accidents, right? I’m certain that most of you have more direct experience at accident scenes than I do, given that my career was mostly on the staff side of the organization. Direct experience comes in various forms, of course, and no two car accidents – sorry, I mean, motor vehicle collisions – are exactly the same. I’d like to share my most recent direct MVC experience.

I had just dropped my daughter off at the piano studio and was on my way to my mom’s house to help her figure out her new tablet computer. As I proceeded onto a section of a service road – one lane in each direction, gravel shoulders on each side with ditches beyond that – an airport limo was approaching in the opposite direction. I didn’t know at the time that it was an airport limo, all I could see was a black sedan coming diagonally right into my path. My awareness was that we were on a collision course, I needed to brake hard and go to the right, the other vehicle was not correcting, and that we were going to hit head-on.

Actually, there wasn’t anywhere near enough time for that level of thought. It was more like this: coming right at me, keep control, here we go.



At this point, I can tell you that the airbag is the most incredible piece of engineering on the planet. My Pontiac Montana minivan decelerated from about 45 kilometres per hour to zero in the space of maybe 75 to 80 centimetres, judging by how much of the engine compartment crumpled in front of me. Add in the space between my chest and the steering column and we are still talking about my torso coming to a complete stop within one metre, give or take. The airbag didn’t feel like it pushed me, and it certainly wasn’t a big fluffy pillow. What it did do was take away almost any sensation that I had moved at all. It stopped me.

OK, I’m alive. I’m alive, and I’m OK. The airbag went off. Wait a minute, I’m not totally OK here. I’m gasping for breath. I’m gasping for breath, but my chest feels OK. My knee hurts. So does the other one. No, the left’s not that bad but the right is toast. No way am I going to move my right leg. Left is hurt, right is way worse. Left is OK to move. I can rotate my right ankle.

I can see steam coming up from what used to be a radiator, through the front right corner of what used to be the hood of my van. I’m keeping my eye on that, and if it changes then I’m out of here, even if I have to crawl on all threes. Otherwise, wait for the medics. Undo the seatbelt. I guess I should stop screaming now.

That must be the other driver. He’s wearing a limo driver’s hat. He looks OK, asks if I am OK and admits right away it was totally his fault. A couple of other people are also checking on me, and someone says 911 has been called. I ask one guy if he can open the sliding door behind me and hand me my computer bag. He can’t get it open. Either the frame is bent, jamming the door, or the door is locked. I try the unlock button even though it seems like the electrical system is destroyed. It is – the sliding door is not going to open. I figure that my computer bag likely is on the floor behind me, and I just manage to reach one of the straps while remaining in my seat. My phone is in my shirt pocket. I still haven’t felt any blood running down my leg.

I think I have enough time to call my 83-year-old mother who is expecting me to arrive any minute, before responders are on scene. Downplay, downplay, downplay. I’m OK but the car is not, don’t worry, I have to go talk to the police now, I will call you as soon as I can.

In fact, the first constable is on scene. He takes my licence and insurance. The medics are also here now; they do a quick assessment and help me walk to the ambulance. I realize two things: I don’t have my glasses on, and I don’t recall opening my car door. I ask if anyone can take a quick look for my glasses, and step carefully into the ambulance. The cop asks to which hospital the medics are taking me, and tells me he will be there shortly to take my statement. I’m thinking I have time for another quick phone call, to get my sister-in-law to pick up my daughter at the studio in a few hours, since my wife is out of town. The medics have other ideas, but I manage to get the call in.

About 20 minutes later I am in the emergency room, the doctor has looked at my knee and wants X-rays, although he doesn’t think anything is fractured. A few other complaints have cropped up, a sore left clavicle and a scrape on my abdomen – both from the seatbelt – and a first-degree burn on my wrist from the airbag gas discharge. The cop arrives, takes my statement, gives me back my documents and tells me that the other driver may be charged with careless driving. I am directed to follow the yellow dots on the floor to the X-ray waiting room. Five minutes later, the technician takes three or four shots of my knee and tells me to follow the yellow dots back the other way. I resist doing a shuffle step and singing, “We represent the Lollipop Guild…” although I really, really want to.

Sometimes I forget it is 2013. By the time I get back to Munchkin Land – uh, I mean the emergency room – the doctor is looking at my X-rays on a 25-inch monitor. I don’t even break stride as he tells me that nothing is broken, I’m good to go, keep using ice and take some ibuprofen. Stride might be a bit of an exaggeration. My sister-in-law has arrived to take me home. I’m on my couch, watching Survivor about two-and-a-half hours after the collision.

Why I survived:
• Because of the winding nature of that stretch of road, the combined relative velocity of the two vehicles was about 90 to 95 kilometres per hour, as opposed to 90 each.
• Crumple zones designed into my van allowed it to absorb much of the energy of the collision; energy that otherwise may have resulted in serious damage to the passenger compartment. The windshield wasn’t even cracked.
• I’m a big guy, but the kinetic energy of my body heading toward the steering column was more dependent on velocity than mass. Someone half my weight would have required the airbag to counter half the same amount of kinetic energy, but someone my weight going twice as fast would have four times the energy, possibly overcoming the capacity of the airbag to compensate as fully as mine did for me.
• The seatbelt not only restricted my forward motion, it prevented me from being thrown out of the driver’s door, which had popped open in the collision.
• Even though my injuries were not severe, I was rapidly attended to by the other driver, passers-by, and professional emergency responders.

If you have noticed that I did not mention fire, it was because I had no interaction with firefighters that evening. I can only assume that the medics arrived first, given their fairly rapid appearance. I hesitate to put any timelines on the incident, but I don’t think more than five minutes had gone by before the ambulance was on scene. Luck of the draw. Also, I didn’t require extrication. When I was seated in the ambulance, I did notice a fire apparatus parked some distance behind the collision scene, acting as a blocker.

All in all, a very interesting experience. A week later, my knee is still swollen and a few designer colours, but otherwise I am cooking with gas. The whole ordeal is costing quite a bit of time with all of the follow-up tasks, and will cost some money once I get the insurance settlement and try to use that to buy a replacement vehicle.

But, after the assistance and service I received from a few ordinary folks and some very professional first responders and hospital medical staff, I am one satisfied taxpayer and citizen.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo

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