Just Off Center: A Hidden Car Crash Danger

Two deputies from the Harris County sheriff’s office wound up in a head-on collision earlier this week. While head-on collisions can be very dangerous, it turns out that so-called “overlap crashes” are potentially worse. An “overlap crash” is a head-on collision that involves the outer 25 percent on either side of a car’s front end.

Head-on collisions often result from distracted or drunk driving. It only takes a moment of distraction for a driver to veer out of his or her lane and directly into oncoming traffic.

In the case of this Harris County head-on crash, police are reporting that dense fog might have played a big role. The deputies were parked in a middle turn lane around 3:15 a.m., surrounded by early morning fog. A pickup truck crashed directly into their car while it was parked. One of the deputies and the pickup driver suffered some injuries.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, this crash might have been less severe because the truck hit their car directly head-on. Due to the known risks of head-on collisions, car makers reinforce front-ends to resist the high forces involved in these crashes. A lesser-known danger zone lurks on either side, however.

The “overlap” zones on either side of a car’s front-end engine area make up just 25 percent of the hood. However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 10,000 people die in overlap crashes every year. This is likely because the overlap zones are not built to resist crashes as well as the rest of the front-end. Impacts can easily collapse the “cage” that usually protects occupants in crashes. In particular, overlap crashes can force car wheels and other objects into the cage.

While car makers seem to be responding to greater awareness of these hidden risks, most cars on the market are not equipped to withstand overlap crashes.

Sources: KHOU, “Deputy injured in head-on crash on Highway 6,” Nov. 2, 2012; IndyStar, “Autos: New crash standards create debris,” Casey Williams, Oct. 27, 2012