A Baseline for Damage

A friend brought up something I hadn’t considered before: damage to the human body incurred while exiting a moving vehicle and what that looks like, for writing purposes. I hadn’t really given it much thought before, because reasons. Dorothy Grant was in the same conversation however and she suggested looking at motorcycle accidents,  then tied it into writing and what changes she had to introduce so her character could survive the event. I’m going to expound on that, because a baseline needs to be established. And because, as I’ve learned at LTUE from the various panels, no single person knows everything. Part of what helps others is sharing your knowledge about a specific given topic.

My experience in the matter was learned over the family dinner table, courtesy my father. I’ve called him Daddy since I was a little boy, was strongly reinforced by John Wayne’s Big Jake, and at 33, I still call my father “Daddy” as in “Where’s the money, Daddy?”

By way of introduction, Daddy is a collision investigator for LAPD. If you crash in the San Fernando Valley, he (or somebody he trained) will likely be the responder. Up until the time I left home at 19, I could count on lessons at dinner time on what happens when you drive recklessly, intoxicated, etcetera. Complete with diagrams utilizing Hot Wheels cars, and my mother’s flatware. It also started my association with extreme dark humor. Sidenote: when I came home from Afghanistan in late 2011, my mother greeted me at the door with a hug, a kiss and a “thank Heaven you’re home! You’re father needs somebody to laugh at his stories from work!” Dinner was eventful that night.

Now, imagine if you will, Southern California circa 2003 or 2004, round about March (iirc); visualize a Hayabusa, traveling at an extremely high rate of speed down an LA street. Because it’s a Busa, you can reasonably expect it to hit 100 mph in a short amount of time. Which this intrepid fellow did. He was wearing neither helmet, nor safety gear. Yes folks, the rider stepped out on the hurricane deck of an overpowered Hell Rocket wearing flip-flops, a tank top shirt, and denim shorts. None of which helped when, while traveling well over 100 mph down an LA residential street, he hit a pothole with the front tire.

Mr. Intrepid left the Busa and went airborne. Thrice. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

The Busa also went airborne, before beginning a series of front flips. Strike, flip, strike, flip. It came to a rest in the back of a Pizza Delivery Boy’s hatchback a hundred feet further down the street. Totaled both vehicles. By his own admission, he had time to look up, barely recognize what was flying toward him, and then it hit. I’ll let you contemplate the extreme amount of force involved with that, and the speed necessary to achieve such results with a bike weighing 250 kilos on a full tank of gas.

We now return to Mr. Intrepid: he’s now left the bike. A second or so later, he hit asphalt, then went back into the air. The speed and angle were such that it was like a flat rocks skip across water. He is still moving at a terrific rate of speed when he falls victim to gravity and hits the asphalt. AGAIN. With every hit clothing is being ripped off his body, and his skin is being abraded by asphalt. The street itself is being used as a static power sanding belt! Still his body rises, and he continues to fly up into the air. For the third time.

THIS DID NOT KILL HIM.

Slamming into the Mansfield Bar of a Penske moving truck, torso first?

THAT DID NOT KILL HIM.

I see a hand up in the back. What’s your question Yoo Hoo? “Isn’t ‘torso first’ impossible?” Folks, check it out- this is not a perfect sphere in a frictionless, airless environment striking a perfectly smooth surface. This is a human body: it has multiple angles, all of them colliding with the asphalt paved LA street in a multiplicity of ways. Which means that when the body comes off the ground, it can have turned across any of several axes, whilst maintaining rotation and speed. A leg flailing in the air is going to have just as much an effect as the rudder on a boat cutting through the water. All of that comes into play. So yes, Yoo Hoo, going torso first long ways against the back end of a semi truck is not unreasonable in this circumstance.

He was still alive when the ambulance driver and EMTs scraped his body off the Mansfield bar. He was still alive when his Latin mother arrived at the hospital with a Catholic priest from her diocese to deliver Last Rites. She could identify him by a few of his unique tattoos, the most prominent of which was inverted and mutilated Christ on his inner forearm. Daddy said it was like looking at one big pile of road rash. Mr. Intrepid might’ve been comatose at the moment, but he wasn’t dead when she stepped into the room. Bones shattered, body smashed and organ systems shutting down, he still wasn’t quite dead yet.

Mr. Intrepid died somewhere in the middle of Last Rites. Daddy was standing in the hospital room when it happened. What really killed Mr. Intrepid was the combination of all the damage, occurring in a single event. The sheer shock and trauma of the whole ordeal overwhelmed his body. That can and does happen in any number of incidents, including IED strikes. Marine might have no obvious physical damage, but internally the trauma is such, on so small a body (say 120-130 pounds), that shock overwhelms the system and the victim is rendered dead.

Now, as tragic as this was, it serves for an excellent object lesson on just how much punishment the body can take. A young adult male in his mid-20s, reasonably fit, died in a hospital from all of that. Oh the EMTs and the responding officers were fairly certain he was going to die, but he wasn’t legitimately dead YET.

This also serves as a guidepost on characters and the benefit of armor. Dorothy described her creation of “armor cloth” (for a sci-fi story this is brilliant). If you want a character to survive ejection from a motorcycle at 100+ mph, how well-armored do they need to be? Is it the right kind of armor ie does it absorb kinetic energy in such a way as to render that energy harmless to the wearer, or does it simply stop knives/projectiles. Oh by the way, those are very different sets of armor in a contemporary setting, so you’ll either need to invent something new with new rules, or adjust what happens in the story Will your character be bouncing across asphalt/concrete/cement, or landing in loose powdery snow? Or do you need to go back a little further and rewrite the scene to better set up what happens next?

Another area not so well-talked about is this: how physically developed is the character going to be? This is a valid question, and a bone I’d love to pick with Hollywood screenwriters: It typically happens with female characters, and Your strawweight waif of a woman does not have the skeletal structure or musculature necessary to do what you show on screen. Unless she’s been modified in a super secret lab with artificial somethings or received powers from a divine being/device, the sheer majority of your characters do not work as portrayed or presented. Wonder Woman (as portrayed by Gal Godot) was more believable, but her upgrades were more particular, better defined, and pertinent to her character.  Johansson’s Black Widow, while enjoyable visually in terms of spectacle was not believable in terms of her responses to targets.

Now that we’ve explained that, take a look at an extremely fit man who would fall under the classification of “super heavyweight”. We’ll call him Mr. Behemoth. In a car accident, the vehicle crumples around him. And when he finally gets out, he’s going to be walking away from an accident that would have seen little Ms. Strawweight break multiple bones. Sure, he’ll be sore the next day, he might have some bruising, but he won’t take the physical damage the same way and to the same extent Ms. Strawweight will. Daddy has dealt with that on a few separate occasions over the last 29 years, which is part of what inspired me to begin strength training at 15. Brock Lesnar is going to receive physical trauma differently than Conor  McGregor. Links to their respective pages at Sherdog have been provided so you can comprehend what that looks like. Yes, Lesnar is just that big. He’ll handle the same volume of trauma differently. He’s got roughly 110 more pounds on his frame to spread out the damage.

Authors need to be conscious of these specific elements, because such details are relevant to the reader’s involvement in the story. If our characters are to be believable and relevant to the story, accurate physical description and ability is a must. Compare physical description of a character with their specific events- do the two match in terms of what the character is doing? If not, how do we adjust the story to match the character? Or do we keep story the same and adjust the character? What if it’s part of that character’s development?

Maybe Ms. Strawweight needs to break a leg, but the time spent in recuperation is what allows her to think through the problem and plan her revenge, allowing you to demonstrate another aspect of her character, developing her further and showing us the reader that she’s not a flat, two-dimensional being, but multi-faceted, complex and dynamic. Maybe Mr. Behemoth was gonna skip out on the big heist because he’s retired. But wait, somebody wrecked his favorite car with him in it! Now he wants somebody’s head for a hood ornament, and a new car. Congrats your five-man band now has it’s drummer! Oh and by the way, he walked away with only bruises so he can immediately start beating somebody’s ass like a Tongan War Drum! This in turn affects the pacing and speed of various story arcs as well.

In fact, how far reaching this event will be remains your choice. You have a series of decisions you need to make based on all these questions. Remember that mileage varies from one person to another. Exercise good craftsmanship in all that you do.

29 comments

  1. with the right gear, one can hit a lot and survive:

    He still races today (well, if there were races) and if you’re ever on the Isle of Man, stop into Conrod’s Coffee in Ramsey. Or, at events he has little Piaggio Ape trikes converted to mini coffee shops.

  2. One of the things I came to appreciate as a writer was how Dick Francis dealt with riding induced injuries. You do not break a collarbone or other things and come bouncing back, full of vim and vigor, after the chapter break. (Personal experience: a cracked rib or spinal process will have you moving stiffly and very carefully for weeks at least. A cracked rib along with a cold or other respiratory ailment [bad allergies?] is pure misery.)

    1. Not just riding induced injuries, but assorted beatings, getting shoved off a balcony, gunshot wounds to the gut, and other bits of mayhem. His characters toughed their way through it…but tough is the operative word. For days and weeks. Ouch. Ouch. Ow.

      1. I read an interview in which he was asked why his characters suffer so many injuries. His reply was basically, “Well, they say to write what you know, and as a steeplechase jockey I know a lot about getting hurt.”

    2. anecdotes.

      I always wore a helmet.

      As a tween I regularly slid along the road after flying off my two stroke 125. usually at speeds between 30 and 55mph. Several layers of overalls and pullovers and joghing bottoms acted as cheap ablative armour, and cushioned the landings It worked, I was young I tended to bounce and fortunately never slid or flew into anything solid.
      Upshot is. You can certainly leave a bikr at upto 55 mph and slide along the road and bounce back without any lasting damage. Given a lucky landing no hard obstacles and some armour.
      Getting out of car without training is different, You will either find yourself rolling or slamming into the floor and then sliding as your feet make traction first .

      As a more ‘ mature ‘ biker with all the proper kit, always on a crotch rocket of some kind things hurt more.
      Among a few other lucky escapes the following two might be relavent.
      I had separated shoulder after a high sider. The speed limit was 60mph I think. The bike fortunately glanced off my leg on the way past. didn’t notice the compartment heamatoma till it got itchy and burst some time later.
      Vim and vigour at the time absolutely, except I suddenly realised i couldn’t lift my bike with the affected arm. Irritating. when the paramedics showed up I explained what the report they clearly received can’t have been me. My pal who had doubled back was discretely peeling the lawn off my cracked fairing. Ambulance arrived and after explaining it was just just a little slide, not someone being thrown through the air intoa hedge with their bike . I rode home before the police showed up and felt a tad unwell once as anticipated the excitement wore off.
      I Apologised a week after when a cop I met pointed out they had sent a chopper to fly over looking for a body in the fields. I should have called it in tbh. I had to force the Displaced Shoulder back into place repeatedly. the ligaments being permanently torn
      secured it with a cut up wetsuit top till i got enough muscle in place to generally keep it together.

      The other relavent collision was at lower speed below 30mph involved a glancing impact past a stationary vehicle from behind after swerving to avoid another .
      gouged the side panels with my foot til my shin hit the door edge which deformed and ripped away the steel shin protection but saved my leg. Another haematoma, but my shins are a tad insensitive.
      I also Ripped the wing mirror assembly off with my chest and arm on tbe way past the stationary car
      After collecting witness info and trying to trace the driver who swerved into my path. I rode to the hospital and explained my chest felt a bit tight, probably asthma and i thought an inhaler might help.
      They gave me the inhaler abd xrayed me then I rode home. Some Ribs had separated from the sternum but other than that just a few bruises.

  3. That’s gonna leave a mark even if not critically injured. When I was in high school (lo about 1986), a girl in my vo-tech class was absent for a week. When she came back her ENTIRE BODY (at least the parts modesty allowed us to see) was one giant bruise. Skin discolored black from ruptured blood vessels. She’d been on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle when it had skidded out and both of them went flying into the pavement and went tumbling along a ways. No bones broken, it was more of an extreme case of road-rash (but very painful). Probably lucky she was a reasonable size for a 17yr old girl (close to most of the boys) and not one of the tiny girls.

  4. I think i remember hearing about that one on the news, either tv or web. was living in SGV at the time.

  5. I knew a guy (not well) who survived his parachute not opening. He fell into a freshly plowed field just as an RN was driving by. No doubt he landed in just exactly the right way…whatever that was.

    When he got out of the hospital and back to base he was in a metal frame around his body with screws to hold his bones in place while they healed. I teased him by calling him robocop. (Base commander put the civilian parachute jumping company off limits.)

    He got in one of those tabloids. The Inquirer maybe. The write up was very dramatic but I knew the guy. It really happened.

    1. In the introduction to his Deep Survival, Larry Gonzales tells the tale of his own father being one of very few people to survive such a fall without a parachute. IIRC, the Bomber he was in was shot down over Germany during the war. Germans didn’t kill him in prison camp either.

      Hmm. I guess I need to read up more on explosions, and what those can do to the human body.

  6. Even low speed accidents can be bad.

    I have a cousin who at the time lived on a farm in north-eastern Colorado. He and some friends were out having fun driving their dirt bikes and quads (ATVs) across the fields. He drove his quad up a small hill, gave it too much power and flipped it right over on top of him.

    The human body doesn’t enjoy having 500 pounds of vehicle dropped across a leg. It broke pretty badly and laid him up for a while.

  7. There are a number of interesting write-ups of police trying to take down someone on PCP. The amount of damage a human body can take, and the amount of damage a single human can do are both surprising.

  8. The original person who brought up the question had their character going a great deal faster than I had mine. Then again, I know what it’s like to depart the back of a jeep without the benefit of expecting to do so. *clears throat* So even before researching motorcycle accidents, I made sure that my protagonist was 1.) wearing motorcycle-leather equivalent, and 2.) the car was going pretty slowly by the time she bailed (under 35 mph.)

    And Jon, thanks for not continuing the tradition by regaling the above incident at dinner, especially when I was already queasy for unrelated reasons!

  9. Accidents and gunshots are very interesting. As a PT I got to see all the accident/gunshot victims after the surgeons got done patching and sewing things back together.

    Few things I learned.

    An accident one guy will shrug off will cripple another. Its very random.

    Humans are incredibly sturdy. A guy was shot though the liver from the front, side to side through the neck as he turned, and through the fibula from the back as he fled. It was told to me that the guy ran for blocks. Get yourself a BIG pistol.

    Humans are incredibly fragile. A guy ended up a quadriplegic in a power wheelchair because he fell down on the street while working.

    Some people DESERVE worse than they get. A guy shot in the knee was sweet as pie for 6 days post-op. So polite, so nice, did everything the nurses said. Day seven they started tapering his meds and he beat the hell out of an old man with his crutches.

    Healing takes a long time. Weeks. Then its tender for weeks more. It takes months for an athlete to come back from a fracture or a ligament tear, and they are never really the same afterward.

    Most people seem to deal with injuries pretty well, and make the best of things. Some don’t. They quit, and usually die.

    In writing all that experience makes me hard to please at the movies. Fight scenes particularly are hard for me to like because I see things happen and -know- that guy ain’t getting up after that. Then he gets up and I’m not really watching anymore.

    In books I’ve noticed some authors keep a frenetic pace for their characters, one thing after another after another, with no let-up. Guy falls off motorcycle, then climbs building, then falls off building into the cold water, then gets shot in the leg, then has a sword fight…

    No, sorry. I’m out. That guy was done after he fell off the bike. He limped home and soaked in the tub for two days after that, and that was if he was super unbelievably lucky and didn’t break a bone. Ask me how I know.

    Body armor. There’s several things going on there.

    First is penetration resistance, that keeps the stabby things away from your fragile integument. Like leather keeps the road from ripping off your butt as you slide down University Avenue because you were young and stupid and going -way- too fast.

    Second, armor slows the transfer of energy to your body. Padding and hard plates spread the impact of the hockey puck instead of letting it concentrate and break the shin bone.

    At a more science fiction level, armor protects your ligaments and joints from getting pulled too hard. That’s the HANS device they wear in car racing, it keeps the helmet from breaking the neck in a collision. It isn’t just the amount of strain that matters, it is also the speed of onset. Rate of change of acceleration aka jolt. Armor has to spread the onset of the strain over time as well as limit maximum strain.

    Then there are concussion and shock wave effects that travel through the tissues. A scene I’m writing has a 75mm railgun in it, they plan to shoot it with people nearby. 10K feet per second, hypersonic. The shock wave from a thing like that would turn an unprotected human brain into pâté from the noise alone if fired too close. Therefore the characters need helmets, fancy body armor and most importantly a hole to hide in. Let the shock wave skip off the ground and miss your head.

    1. An ER doctor said online once that what the ER teaches you is how easy it is to kill a human being, and how hard it is.

    2. I like the out takes at the end of Jackie Chan movies where it looks like he didn’t even get dinged and he’s on the floor holding his head and everyone else is rushing in to make sure he’s okay. He sometimes isn’t. Most of a movie (or more, but one I know of) was shot with his foot in a cast.)

      1. Rumble in the Bronx! I love that movie. ~:D

        In the end-credits one of the crashes was the stunt woman on the dirtbike. The fall she took didn’t look like much, but she got carted off the the hospital.

        From interviews I’ve seen, Jackie Chan is one big lump of scar tissue these days. Damage accumulates. But he doesn’t care, he’s still working.

    3. The shockwave idea is an oversimplification of some fascinating emergent materials science. I remember a few decades back discussing the palm strike trick where you blew the end cleanly off a nearly full wine bottle with a slap. Despite using it as a martial arts trick , I was aware it wasn’t primarily skill based.
      So with a bunch of Phd scientists from various disciplines whilst on a specialist course I asked if anyone might know why this happened after showing a couple of them how to do it. My guess was shockwaves. There were some dumb explanations like increased pressure too.
      We were all wrong of course. Many years later I saw a short study done at Brigham young university using ultra high speed cameras demonstrating that the break was caused by the implosion of s vapour bubble created as the bottle moved downwards. Cavitation in other words. Again a concept that is misunderstood even when looking at the trauma it causes in firearms injuries. It is not always only the distension that causes trauma but the energy heat and high speed shearing forces that occur during the supersonic collapse of the bubble.
      There’s a lot of ongoing research in this area some of it undoubtedly classified. It does have some implications for the limitations of certain types of body armour. You don’t need to pierce the bottle in order to blow out the other end.

      1. That’s interesting. I thought it was due to the wine rushing to the neck of the bottle due to a low-pressure zone, because you moved the bottle faster than the liquid. Like a dead-blow hammer, the little lead balls inside hit after the face of the hammer hits. Then the neck breaks because there’s all that energy concentrated up at the thin part.

        I loosen spaghetti jar lids by doing that. You have to be careful not to smack it too hard or the jar breaks.

        Diffuse brain injury is one of the areas of interest regarding shock waves and other assorted phenomena. What used to be called “shell shock” is now known to be diffuse brain injury caused by shaking the brain inside the skull. The skull moves, then the brain moves. Just like the spaghetti jar.

        One place this problem has showed up is the NFL. A football career of bashing guys with your helmet turns out to be generating an appalling number of diffuse brain injury cases. It turns out that helmets don’t really help, and might actually make it worse. Contrast with Australian rules football and rugby, which both have a fraction of the brain injuries that American football does.

        Making helmet and body armor design a very interesting problem indeed.

        1. To prove to yourself that it’s more than a slide hammer effect you can try it with a carbonated drink like a beer bottle . Fill it with water and you can still do this to a beer bottle but with beer it won’t work because you have no real cavitation going on. The effect depends on the vapour pressure of the liquid, but significant amounts of dissolved gases prevent creation of the partial vacuum cavities. You sometimes get a lovely ringing sound if you almost have enough energy but not quite enough.
          A water hammer in pipes however is a cavitation effect. The time it takes this info to reach and sink in with clinicians is probably 50 years. Yes it seems plausible likely that some eye injuries like vitreous or retinal detachments are cavitation based as opposed to the hypothetised catch all shockwave idea. Clinicians are seldom physicists.
          As for Brain injury. You would perhaps need to look at the vapour density of the cvs and decide wether cavitation was likely to occur in certain traumatic events.
          The mantis shrimp is known to use the effect as a weapon.
          Modern lamellar armour such as dragon skin might at a guess also raise concerns because of the velocity localised motion in absorption of a projectile. Just a guess of course.

          1. Currently the brain injury literature is quite short on causation, being more focused on effects and rehab.

            Cavitation in the brain would be amazingly destructive. Makes me wonder if that’s what is going on with shock wave effects from explosions. On the bright side, to prevent cavitation all you have to do is slow the onset of acceleration to below the vapor formation point.

      2. Huh. So I just had to go look that up, but that’s kinda neat.

        Also learned you can use it to uncork wine without a corkscrew. Put the base of the bottle in a shoe and hit it against the wall a few times.

    4. An EMT instructor who’s a shooting buddy has been known to speak of the tooth to tattoo survivability ratio: The fewer teeth and the more tattoos, the more likely they’re going to survive something wherein the police report starts with “alcohol may have been a factor”.

      (or “Here, hold my beer and watch this!”)

    5. Useful stuff (largely about pistol vs rifle — as one comment puts it, “a pistol is just a way of creating stab wounds at a distance…”)

      Dr Andreas Grabinsky Lecture on Gunshot Wounds
      WARNING — includes a few very graphic images
      (we’re writers, we do worse)

      My favorite is the guy who gets hit 3x point-blank with a 9mm, and doesn’t even *notice*.

      .

  10. I’ll forgive too much bounce-back in a gumshoe. It goes with the territory. Gumshoes are a form of wish-fulfillment fantasy, after all. But otherwise, I’d like at least a nod toward realism. What’s realistic of course varies a lot by venue, species, and available mitigation.

    My nonhumans heal like dogs do — they can come back better and faster from trauma that would disable a human. [Occurs to me I need to make this a bit more clear at some point.] OTOH they don’t do a lot of what we’d call basic medical treatment (frex, there’s a serious and reasonable prohibition on transfusions, why comes out in Book 7..), so they’ll put you back together but you mostly heal on your own.

    My MC got on the wrong side of Bad Guy’s political machinations, got chewed up pretty good, and consequently did two years in rehab before he was fit enough to dodder around on his own, and another few years to where the majority of the lingering effects went away. But it left him with a permanent bad knee, and that follows him for the rest of his life. He frequently mutters that he would like a kinder author. (But quietly… he’s *seen* what some of you lot do to your characters!)

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