One of the reasons the Emmy award-winning television show “Breaking Bad” is fun to watch is that it manages to make a completely unrealistic premise — a nebbish chemistry teacher becomes a drug king? — seem believable. But there was one moment this past season where I found myself saying, “Really?”
As bad guys opened fire with machine guns, the main character, who was trapped inside a GMC Yukon, ducked to the floor to avoid getting hit. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bullets peppered the vehicle, but with several episodes still to come, you knew Walter White would be just fine.
Still, I had to wonder: Would a vehicle’s doors really protect you from gunfire?
“You have to love Hollywood,” said Dave Mello, a Marshfield-based gun dealer to whom I showed the scene. “I saw handguns, shotguns, submachine guns, and what looked like full automatic rifle fire. They all would penetrate the passenger compartment of the Yukon. In my estimation, he is DEAD!”
For some added entertaiment as we await the Academy Awards program tonight, I thought I’d find out just how accurate the film industry is when it comes to car scenes. Do vehicles really blow up whenever they crash? Can you hot-wire a car in less time than it takes to read this sentence? Jump out of a moving vehicle, roll on the ground, and appear in the next scene without so much as a scratch?
Let’s find out.
You can’t have an action movie without at least one exploding car, right? When the accident is fantastically orchestrated, involving a big crash or huge amounts of leaking gasoline and the like, we can buy it. But when a car explodes after hitting, say, a mailbox, how believable is that?
Turns out, very few of the explosions we see on TV or in the movies are realistic, even the most extravagant ones.
“It’s really difficult to get a car to blow up,” said David Protano, who chairs the automotive department at Boston’s Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology.
“Years ago, with the Ford Pinto, if the gas tank got rear-ended, it could blow up. But a lot of the newer cars have plastic gas tanks, not metal. They can take the impact. Plus, bumpers on cars are built to absorb a crash. With cars these days, there are all sorts of crush points. On impact, they are supposed to collapse to protect the driver, and prevent the gas tank from being crushed.”
For a car to explode, you’d need a significant oil or gas leak, Protano said. But modern vehicles are designed to prevent that from happening. For example, if your car were to roll over, a special rollover valve in your gas tank would prevent fuel from leaking out. Sensors, meanwhile, would alert the engine to immediately shut off as you’re turning upside-down.
“That way, you don’t have the ignition or engine spark to ignite gas,” Protano said. “It kind of irritates me sometimes when I’m watching these cars flip and blow up, because it doesn’t happen.”
Just how rare are car explosions in real life? According to a 2011 report published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fires occur in fewer than 1 out of every 1,000 car accidents nationwide. Statistics aren’t kept on the number of explosions, but obviously, that’s going to be an even smaller figure.
“It does seem like a disproportionate number of Hollywood car crashes do involve fires,” Marty Ahrens, a senior researcher with the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association, told me. “Obviously, they are not looking at the probabilities. Everything has to be dramatic.”
How many times have we seen someone in a movie or on TV emerge relatively uninjured from a car that has flipped over in an accident? If the person was being chased, they’re usually long gone by the time their pursuer arrives.
The movie “Crash,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2004, really piles it on. After her car has flipped over on the highway, we see the driver hanging upside down in her seat belt. She doesn’t like the cop who’s come to rescue her, though, so she starts punching him, while upside down, as he tries to unbuckle her. A minute later, she’s walking away with barely a limp from the wreck, which of course, blows up.
The number of inaccuracies in the scene are hard to count, said Dr. George Velmahos, Massachusetts General Hospital’s chief of trauma surgery and a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School.
People in rollovers are often ejected from their vehicles, sometimes even when wearing seat belts, he said. They crack their heads on side windows or dashboards, can have internal organs crushed, or can suffer severe spinal injuries. Flipped vehicles are often so mangled, they physically trap occupants inside, even if they are well enough to crawl out.
“Once a car crashes at anything more than 50 or 60 miles per hour, the odds that someone will walk out unscathed is minuscule,” Velmahos said. “This is common sense to most of the audience. Well, maybe not.”
In the 2011 movie “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” Steve Carrell’s character can’t stand to hear what his wife is saying, so he threatens to jump out of the car unless she stops.
She continues, so to the audience’s surprise he makes good on his promise, opening the passenger door and tumbling out.
“Tracy runs to him,” reads the movie script, which I found online. “He’s on the curb, BLOODIED but okay. Tracy [says] ‘Are you out of your mind?!’ ”
Velmahos again chuckled when I asked him about such scenes. You’d be out of your mind, he said, to believe someone could survive a jump unscathed.
“Yeah, that’s complete science fiction,” he said. “If you fall out of a moving car, the chances are that you either die or you get severely injured. I think you’d be severely injured going as slow as 20 miles per hour. At minimum, I bet you break a few bones and probably have a head injury.”
If you believe movies and TV, hot-wiring a car is as easy as tying your shoelaces. You just stick your hands under the dashboard, rub some wires together, and you’re off!
“When I see this, I ask myself, ‘What about the steering wheel lock?’ ” Protano said. “When you take the key out, the steering wheel locks [so you can’t turn it]. When thieves break into cars, they usually damage the steering wheel column to release the lock. But in the movies, you don’t see that. They don’t do anything to the steering wheel column — they just get in and go.
“Then again,” added Protano, “maybe James Bond knows something I don’t.”
Hey, he’s not 007 for nothing.Peter DeMarco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.