5 Common Side Impact Collision Injuries: Treatment and Recovery

The most common types of injuries from side-impact crashes can be devastating. Learn about current treatments and expected recovery.

Also called broadside collisions or T-bone crashes, side-impact collisions often cause severe injuries to the occupants. These accidents cause 23 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in the United States, second only to head-on collisions.¹

The size of the vehicles involved and the location of the occupant (near-side or non-impact side) have a bearing on the scope and number of injuries. On average, near-side crash survivors sustain 2.1 severe injuries, while fatally injured occupants sustained 5 or more severe injuries.²

Almost half (49%) of all T-bone accident victims sustain chest injuries, followed by head and face (24%), pelvis and legs (14%), and neck and spine (4%).³

Top 5 Injuries from Side Impact Collisions:

  1. Traumatic Aortic Rupture
  2. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)
  3. Pelvis and Leg Injuries
  4. Spinal Cord Injuries
  5. Soft Tissue Back or Neck Injuries

Bonus: Why Side Impact Collisions Cause Severe Injuries

1. Traumatic Aortic Rupture

Traumatic aortic transection, also called aortic rupture, is a life-threatening emergency. The aorta is the largest artery in the body, carrying freshly oxygenated blood from the pumping chamber of the heart to the rest of the body.

Aortic rupture is a lethal consequence of side-impact collisions, where trauma to the chest causes tears through several layers of the aortic wall. Severe or complete tears are instantly fatal, and are the second-most common cause of death in any type of car accident.

Victims with a partial tear may survive the crash and receive emergency treatment at the hospital. Repairs to the ruptured aorta can be done by endovascular treatment to place a stent, or by open surgery, where the damaged section is replaced with a graft.

Recovery from an aortic transection repair can take a month at best, usually a few months for open-heart surgery, with the first week or two in the hospital ICU for careful monitoring. Patients with co-existing traumatic injuries from a side-impact collision will have a longer, more complicated recovery.

2. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI)

In a T-bone crash, the victim’s head can strike the vehicle frame or window, causing the brain to hit the inside of the skull. Depending on the force of the impact, the person can suffer anything from a mild concussion to a skull fracture, often with long-term cognitive damage. Severe brain injuries can be fatal.

Lesser crashes tend to result in diffuse brain injuries from hitting the interior of the vehicle. Focal brain injuries, meaning damage to a specific area of the brain, will impair function to that part of the brain. Focal brain injuries may arise from skull fractures, causing bleeding in the brain, tearing of brain tissue, or a collection of blood that presses on the brain called a hematoma.

Mild concussions may resolve in a few weeks or months. Severe brain injuries may leave the accident victim permanently impaired, including cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, inability to focus or problem-solve, and more.

3. Pelvis and Leg Injuries

The type of lower-body injuries suffered in side-impact car crashes often depend on which side of the car was occupied. Occupants sitting on the side of impact are more likely to suffer pelvic and hip injuries. Occupants on the far side of the car are more likely to sustain thigh, knee, and lower leg injuries.

Fractures to the pelvis, hips, and thigh bones usually require surgical repair with internally placed rods, plates, and screws.

Recovery from a broken hip or pelvis can take at least six months to see substantial improvement, and a year or more to reach maximum improvement.

4. Spinal Cord Injuries

The human spinal cord attaches to the brain stem and runs the length of the spinal column. Spinal cord injuries can cause nerve damage, permanent paralysis, or death. Trauma patients are assumed to have spinal cord injuries until testing proves otherwise.

The levels of damage from a spinal cord injury will depend on the area of the spine that is damaged in the crash. In T-bone collisions, the chest and upper body are most at risk.

Spinal injuries high up on the neck may leave the victim paralyzed from the neck down, requiring 24-hour care for the rest of their life. Thoracic cord injuries (mid-back) can leave the person dependent on a wheelchair, but they may have the use of their arms and hands.

There is no way to repair spinal cord injuries. Initial treatment is aimed at protecting the victim’s breathing, avoiding shock, preventing further damage, and avoiding complications, like infection and blood clots. Ongoing treatment involves continued efforts to prevent complications, and a team of rehabilitation specialists to help the victim cope and adapt to their injuries.

5. Soft Tissue Back or Neck Injuries

Back injuries are quite common in driver-side impacts. The force of the impact can rupture or herniate the discs located in and around the spinal bones near the neck, mid-back, or lower area of the back.

Muscles, ligaments, and tendons all over the body can be sprained and strained in car accidents. Jolting and stretching of the neck and shoulder from side to side and forward and backward is similar to a whip effect, resulting in whiplash injuries.

Recovery from a sprained back, slipped disc, or whiplash injury can take weeks or months. Some victims are left with permanent residual effects that keep them from lifting more than a few pounds or standing for long periods.

In addition to more serious injuries, crash victims often sustain a variety of minor soft-tissue injuries, such as bruises, scrapes, sprains, and lacerations.

Why Side Impact Collisions Cause Severe Injuries

When your car is hit from the front or back, like in a rear-end collision, there is a bigger “crumple zone” between you and the point of impact. Your bumpers, trunk, motor, and seats can absorb a lot of force.

But when your car is broadsided, the person on the side that takes the hit is extremely vulnerable. Even with airbags, there’s only the car door and window to slow the other vehicle before it hits you or your passenger.

Side-curtain airbags can reduce driver fatalities in T-bone accidents by up to 52 percent, however not all cars and SUVs on the road today are equipped with head and torso side-curtain airbags.

On impact, the vehicle occupants are violently jolted from side to side. Airbags and seatbelts may help, but the human body can only absorb so much force. When the force is more than the body can take, multiple severe injuries and even death can occur.

Secondary Crashes

Side-impact car accidents often cause secondary crashes, by spinning or slamming the car into other cars, guardrails, trees, or other stationary objects. Side airbags deployed in the first impact are no protection when your car rolls over, or spins and crashes into a telephone pole.

Side pole crashes are particularly lethal, with 7 out of 10 occupants on the side of impact sustaining both chest and head injuries.

Getting Your Medical Bills Paid After a Crash

Never delay or forgo medical treatment after a collision, or you risk jeopardizing any future car accident claim. The driver of the vehicle that T-boned you (usually after blowing through a stop sign or red light) will likely be found liable for your medical expenses, lost wages, out-of-pocket costs, and your pain and suffering.

Even when liability is clear, it can take months or years to finally resolve an injury claim. It may be months before your medical status has stabilized enough to know the long-term impact of your injuries, allowing your attorney to estimate the total value of your side-impact settlement.

Health Insurance

The first option for paying medical bills is through your health insurance provider. Private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA all have the legal right to place liens on your final injury settlement to get back the money they’ve paid on your behalf.

An experienced personal injury attorney can negotiate with lienholders so you get to keep more of your settlement money.

Auto Insurance

Your own car insurance, or the driver’s insurance if you were a passenger, may have MedPay or Personal Injury Protection (PIP) that you can tap into right away to cover medical expenses, up to the limit of coverage. MedPay and PIP limits are typically between $5,000 and $10,000.

Given the severity of injuries common to side-impact collisions, MedPay or PIP limits will not be nearly enough to cover all your medical bills, but it might cover your health insurance deductible and other out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Most auto policies have coverage to protect you if the at-fault driver is uninsured. Optional underinsured motorist coverage kicks in when the at-fault driver’s insurer has paid policy limits, but it’s not enough to cover all your damages.

If you have no health insurance or auto insurance to help with medical bills, you may be eligible for Medicare. Talk to the social worker or financial aid person at the hospital.

Finally, your attorney may work out an agreement with your main medical care providers to delay payment until your claim settles. Essentially, you and your attorney sign off on a “letter of protection” that promises to pay the doctor or hospital.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>