My Real-World Life-or-Death Experience with OnStar

If you've never used it, you might think GM's OnStar system is useless. In reality, it can be a literal lifesaver.

General Motors

On July 22, I had two very different interactions with General Motors’ OnStar service. The first one was, frankly, annoying. Just three weeks ago, I’d bought a new Chevrolet Silverado crew cab with the 6.2-liter V8 and the MaxTow package. It’s a hell of a truck, and I could probably write ten thousand words about how it is the authentic and sterling successor to those wonderful old Kingswood wagons that lumbered through the landscape of my East Coast childhood like slow-witted, good-natured apatosaurs with hubcaps. Unfortunately for me, however, I’ve been traveling so much that I’ve had no time to get my permanent tags, figure out how many of the features work, or even activate the OnStar service that comes as standard equipment.

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OnStar has been emailing me on a steady basis trying to get me to set up their service, but since I’ve been away from the truck there has been no opportunity to make that happen. In fact, when I got behind the wheel on Saturday morning it was the first time I’ve driven the truck since the day after I bought it. To my surprise, OnStar automatically activated and asked me to set it up. “Later,” I said, and shut it off. I had a twelve-hour drive to South Carolina with my wife (the infamous Danger Girl) and son ahead of me, and I wanted to start that drive immediately rather than fuss with payment information, choice of service, and all that. “What a pain in the ass,” I growled.

About ninety minutes later, I was driving down Route 33 in southeastern Ohio, pretty close to where this magazine conducted its first couple of PCOTY tests, and I happened to see a crumpled-up Malibu Maxx in the ditch on the side of the road. It had been rolled a few times. The windows were all blown out and the roof had acquired a steep pitch. The Malibu was settled pretty deep into the watery mud of the ditch. “No wonder it hasn’t been towed out yet,” I said to my wife. “It’s going to take a miracle to pull it out.”

Then I saw a hand, pale white, hanging brokenly out of the driver’s side window opening. Danger Girl and I looked at each other.

“That was a hand,” she said.

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“That was a hand,” she said. In a flash, I realized what had happened: nobody had seen the accident on this lightly-traveled road, and nobody had bothered to look closely at the vehicle. We were about to be promoted to first responders.

I reached for my phone but Danger Girl is a long-time Chevy truck owner and she had a better idea; she hit the OnStar emergency button and began talking to the operator. A quarter-mile down the road, there was a gravel strip across the median and I hooked the Silverado across and through it before flooring the throttle back towards the crash. When I got to the Malibu, I had no easy option so I re-crossed the median in the grass and mud. I had to stop because now there were several cars and a couple of tractor-trailers coming our way. When it was time to go, the back wheels spun uselessly.

“Four-wheel-drive,” DG said. I was momentarily confused before I realized that this was a part-time 4WD truck. I haven’t owned one of those since… well, since never. I twisted the dashboard knob and with a roar from the 6.2 the Silverado burst out of the mud and across the road.

We came to a halt. Danger Girl jumped out with her CPR kit. I thought about target fixation and the possibilities for further accidents before driving the Silverado a further thirty feet off the shoulder, down into the ditch near the Malibu. I didn’t want somebody to be distracted by the crash and hit the truck as a consequence. I got out and headed towards the car.

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My eight-year-old son had a perfectly lucid conversation with OnStar about the crash.

Meanwhile, my eight-year-old son had a perfectly lucid conversation with the OnStar representative about the crash and what kind of assistance would be required. He didn’t know where we were, but that was okay: the truck knew, and it was able to tell the operator, who in turn knew which emergency services to .

About ninety seconds after we came to a halt next to the Malibu, an unlikely miracle occurred. A transport ambulance happened to be passing through the area and they saw the accident. There were three medics on board and they immediately began the task of stabilizing the driver, who was very much alive but also suffering from a variety of critical injuries. Before they had been on the scene for five minutes, an Ohio State Trooper showed up.

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Shortly after that, two ambulances arrived, summoned by OnStar. The response had taken less than ten minutes from the moment my wife hit the emergency button in the Silverado–this, in an area of Ohio so bereft of population that more than a third of the roads are just gravel and dirt. I spoke to the trooper for a few minutes, confirmed that there was nothing for me to do, then I returned to the Silverado. My son was concerned about the driver but I explained that he was in good hands. Once we reached the gravel shoulder I flipped the switch back to 2WD and rejoined traffic.

I’d never given the OnStar service much thought.

I’d never given the OnStar service much thought before; in fact, when I’ve mentioned it to people lately it’s been in the context of a Corvette Grand Sport I tested last year, which decided to call OnStar and report an accident during a high-speed sideways corner entry at NCM Motorsports Park. It seemed like a pretty frivolous, useless feature, made almost a bit sinister by its ability to remotely shutdown vehicles and unlock doors.

Well, that was then and this is now. Yes, I could have used my cellphone to call for help–but to be honest I couldn’t have given my location within five miles at that point, even though I was on a route that I regularly drive when heading south out of Ohio. I’ve also had some annoying incidents in the past when I called 911 in rural Ohio to report an accident or try to get help for an injured friend, only to be shuttled around departments because the phone networks are patchy and the emergency routing isn’t always perfect.

By contrast, OnStar knew where I was, knew who to call, and knew the relevant questions to ask. I’ll probably spring for one of the monthly service packages now that I’ve seen what I can do. With any luck, I’ll never have to use it again, either on my behalf or to help someone else–but I’ll be a little more relaxed on the road with my family, knowing it’s activated and ready. Those of you who read me on a regular basis know that I’m pretty cynical about most things. When it comes to OnStar, however, I’m now a believer.

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