More than 6 million motor vehicle accidents occur each year in the United States. When they happen, they can cause injuries ranging from mild to severe — and they can often be fatal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated almost 43,000 Americans died from car accidents in 2021, a 16-year high.
When motor vehicle accidents happen, every minute counts. First responders and hospital teams work together to provide lifesaving care for people involved in a crash. And the people involved in the accident play an important role in making sure they and others get the care they need.
It’s important to know the process of what happens when you’re in an accident. Learn what you should do and what emergency and hospital personnel do to help save lives.
Common Injuries from Motor Vehicle Accidents
Motor vehicle accidents cause millions of injuries per year in the U.S., ranging from mild to severe. Common injuries may include:
- Head injuries, including concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
- Back injuries.
- Neck injuries.
- Broken bones.
- Penetrating injuries.
- Spinal cord injuries/paralysis.
- Abdomen/torso injuries.
- Internal organ damage.
“Sometimes, figuring out at an accident scene what injuries somebody has can be quite difficult,” says Christian Martin-Gill, MD, chief, Division of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), UPMC, and associate medical director, UPMC Prehospital Care. “That is what EMS personnel are trained to do — to assess individuals following a crash and evaluate for potential injuries.
“The severity of the collision has a lot to do with the types of injuries that we see, including the mechanism of collisions, the amount of damage to a vehicle, and other factors.”
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What Should I Do If I’m in a Car Accident?
If you’re in a motor vehicle accident, the first thing you should do is ensure your safety. Dr. Martin-Gill says you should remain in your vehicle unless the vehicle itself is unsafe (for example, if it’s on fire). Exiting your vehicle onto a highway or roadway can be dangerous.
If your car is on fire or otherwise unsafe, exit the vehicle if you can and get to safety. Once you’ve ensured your safety and that of any other passengers, call 911 and wait for emergency responders to arrive.
What should I do if someone else is injured in a car accident?
If you are not injured in a vehicle accident but a passenger or someone else is, you may need to provide lifesaving care until first responders arrive. That may include:
- Removing them from a burning car or otherwise dangerous situation.
- Working to stop any active bleeding.
- Making sure they are breathing and have a pulse.
- Opening an airway and performing CPR if they aren’t breathing and have no pulse.
Although moving someone may not be ideal after an accident, Dr. Martin-Gill says it’s critical to address serious bleeding or lack of breathing.
“While we would typically want to minimize the movement of somebody after a collision, it’s important to make sure that they’re in a position where they can breathe well and that we address any immediate bleeding that may be happening,” he says.
If there are no issues with bleeding or breathing, Dr. Martin-Gill says you should wait for emergency personnel to arrive to provide care.
What Emergency Responders Do When There’s a Car Accident
When first responders arrive at the scene of a motor vehicle accident, they will secure the area, including ensuring any involved vehicles are secure. They also will provide care to the people involved in the accident, including assessing injuries and determining the next steps of care.
You may not realize the extent of your injuries, Dr. Martin-Gill says. EMS personnel have specific training to evaluate and assess injuries and determine whether someone should go to the hospital.
To determine whether someone needs to go to the hospital for further care, EMS personnel use protocols. Pennsylvania uses statewide protocols that closely follow national trauma triage guidelines, Dr. Martin-Gill says.
“We err on the side of caution, making sure that victims who were involved in collisions where the mechanism suggests that there may be injuries are transported to a hospital to be further evaluated,” Dr. Martin-Gill says. “That way, they can make sure that any such injury is identified and treated appropriately.”
If someone does need to go to the hospital, EMS personnel most often will take them by ambulance. In cases of severe injuries, EMS personnel will take them to a certified trauma center.
The EMS teams will continue to provide care for victims on the way to the hospital or trauma center. They will contact the hospital on the way to give them an estimated time of arrival. This allows hospitals to be ready to provide care when the ambulance arrives — including activating a trauma team if necessary.
Can I drive myself to the hospital after a car accident?
You may feel well enough to drive yourself to the hospital if you’re by yourself after an accident. But Dr. Martin-Gill says the best thing to do is to call 911 and wait for first responders to arrive at the scene and assess you.
“Somebody who has just been a victim of a collision or crash may not be able to tell for themselves whether they’re likely to be injured,” he says.
EMS personnel are trained in evaluating injuries. They can determine what care you need and what transportation is appropriate for you to go to the hospital. They often do this with the collaboration of EMS physicians via phone or radio consultation.
How Hospitals Care for Car Accident Victims
The hospital triage and care process after a motor vehicle accident depends on the severity of the person’s injuries. In cases of severe accidents and injuries, a multidisciplinary trauma team often provides care. For minor injuries, the hospital’s triage staff and emergency physicians will evaluate the patient and determine the next steps of care.
What is a trauma team?
A trauma team provides care for the most severe injuries. A trauma team includes specialists from trauma surgery and emergency medicine, usually incorporating both attending physicians and residents from both. The trauma team also includes Emergency Department nurses, respiratory therapists, patient care technicians, and radiology staff.
The trauma team will do an assessment of the patient to evaluate for injuries. That includes taking vital signs, performing a head-to-toe assessment, asking the patient questions, getting x-rays, or other imaging as needed.
“Trauma teams perform standardized assessments to ensure that we don’t miss injuries,” Dr. Martin-Gill says. “The full assessment and treatment happens in a very efficient and systematic way.”
It’s important for the patient to cooperate with the trauma team throughout the process, Dr. Martin-Gill adds. That way, the team has a clear picture of potential injuries and can identify them quickly.
“If you unfortunately find yourself as a patient in a trauma center, make sure you assist the team by answering all questions and participate in your assessment along the way,” he says.
Are You Seen Right Away at the Emergency Department After a Crash?
Your care at the hospital after a car accident will depend on the level of your injuries. Severe, life-threatening injuries require immediate care. For more minor injuries, a triage nurse or physician will evaluate you and determine the next steps of the care process.
What Should I Do If I Don’t Know I’m Injured Until Later?
First responders do a full assessment of people at the scene of a motor vehicle accident. But some injuries may not become apparent until later.
If you begin to feel symptoms after being involved in a motor vehicle accident, you can contact your personal care provider (PCP) if you can reach them. But if your symptoms are more severe, Dr. Martin-Gill says the Emergency Department is the right choice.
“If there’s significant pain or you are not feeling well after a car crash at any point, then you can be evaluated in the Emergency Department to determine if there are any significant injuries,” he says.
Time is crucial after motor vehicle accidents. Everyone involved — from the people involved in the crash, to EMS personnel, to hospital care teams — plays an important role in saving lives.
“We work continuously in collaboration with everybody along the continuum of care,” Dr. Martin-Gill says. “That is part of the chain of survival, from the 9-1-1 dispatchers to EMS personnel, such as EMTs and paramedics, all the way through to care that happens in the hospital, from the Emergency Department to other aspects of the hospital where patients are ultimately taken care of. It’s all one continuum of care.”
Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or in a heartbeat. And when they do, minutes matter. UPMC’s Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our Emergency Departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care at several of our hospitals. If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Department.