National News

High-speed car crashes exert lethal force

Posted October 9, 2018 7:38 a.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. _ The laws of physics are harsh and unforgiving when a human being is exposed to a high-speed car crash even while wearing a seat belt and are amplified without that protection.

A tragic crash in Schoharie County that killed all 18 people in a rented stretch limousine likely reflected a "very severe impact" that inflicted various forms of sudden, extreme crushing injuries, said Michael Baden, an internationally known forensic pathologist.

Autopsy results from the victims of the Schoharie crash are still pending.

"It will depend on factors like how people were seated, whether they were wearing belts," said Baden, who has worked for the New York State Police. Now in private practice, Baden has worked with journalists, producers, and private legal teams to investigate the deaths of many well-known and historic figures, from Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, to comedian John Belushi.

At the moment of a vehicle crash, a tremendous amount of kinetic energy _ called G-force (for gravitational force) _ is unleashed at levels that be equivalent to many tons.

The level of G-force depends on factors like the weight of the person, the vehicle speed at the time of the crash, and how quickly the vehicle stops.

So far, officials have not released an estimate of the limousine's speed at the time of the crash.

Right now, anyone reading this is being exposed to roughly 1 G, which means that a 160-pound person feels the exertion of being 160 pounds. Riding an extreme roller coaster can produce up to 6 Gs (or the feeling of 960 pounds of force on that person's body) for brief periods, according to an order of magnitude listing found on Wikipedia that cites numerous scientific reports.

A fighter jet pilot wearing a pressurized protective suit can experience up to 12 Gs (or nearly a ton of force for that same hypothetical person) on a sharp maneuver, which is enough to make an unprotected person pass out as the force inhibits blood from being pumped from the heart into the brain.

Hitting a level of about 18 Gs is enough to start causing human injury, like burst capillaries, bruising or broken bones. This can happen as the body's soft internal structures keep moving due to inertia for milliseconds after the exterior of the body has slowed as the car itself slows.

A passenger wearing a stretching-style seat belt _ meant to extend the time it takes the person to slow _ during a 30 mph crash is briefly exposed to 20 Gs (or about 3,200 pounds of force on the 160 pound person), according to an online accident simulator from the physics department at Georgia State University.

With a nonstretching seat belt, that force in that same crash increases to about 30 Gs (about 4,800 pounds of force), which can worsen injuries and perhaps even break bones, but is usually survivable. Modern cars are made with crumple zones, which are meant to absorb some of the energy of the crash before it can reach a vehicle's occupants.

Beyond 50 Gs, the risk of serious injuries or death is significant. Without a belt, that same person in a 30 mph crash can be subjected to about 150 Gs (or a potentially fatal 24,000 pounds of force), according to the online simulator.

For example, in the 1997 crash that killed Princess Diana in Paris, the Mercedes in which she was a passenger was estimated to be traveling at about 65 mph at the time of the crash, which could have exposed her to about 70 Gs (based on her approximate weight of 125 pounds), according to CNN reporting at the time.

That level of force is enough to force internal organs like the heart, lungs, brains and intestines to move around inside the body. In Diana's case, that force tore a pulmonary artery leading from her heart that caused her death.

The Georgia State University car crash simulator can be found online at

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