A lot of controversy surrounds the fatal car crash of reporter Michael Hastings. There’s no accident report yet; no toxicology report, either. That might take months, as high-profile cases like this often involve a lot of lawyers. Even when there’s less controversy, a fatal car crash will involve insurance companies, legal wrangling, and in most states and some major cities (like Los Angeles), a Collision Reconstruction Unit (CRU). Think of it as CSI for car crashes: Investigators painstakingly sift through evidence to make sure that they can accurately say what happened during an accident. All of this means it could be a very long time for official findings on Hastings’s accident to be released.
But even without official reports, there’s no lack of information about his deadly wreck.
What’s known is that a camera mounted on the dash of an LAPD cruiser showed his C250 running a red light at a high rate of speed around 4:20 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 2013. Just a few minutes later, the same cruiser was called to the scene of the accident, where the C-class was engulfed in flames after apparently hitting a tree, its engine ejected from the hood of the car. Hastings was found in the driver’s seat, burned beyond recognition.
Immediately, conspiracy theorists jumped to conclusions. Because Hastings had blown the lid off General Stanley McChrystal’s insubordination and was a pioneering muckraker, Internet posts started spinning the idea that Hastings’s car had been sabotaged. C-class Benzes just don’t blow up like that, the theories went; and their engines don’t randomly pop free of their mounts and fly out from underhood.
Without some form of foul play, how could Hastings’s crash have been so violent, so deadly?
Sadly, the answers we’ve found almost entirely point to the less-exciting conclusion, that when a car hits a stationary object like a tree, a brick wall, or a telephone pole, very bad things happen. Here’s the grim how and why.
”When I first started in New York’s Collision Reconstruction Unit 19 years ago,” starts Lieutenant Dan Bates, who now supervises said 76-person department for the state, “we’d see that if you hit a solid object, like a house or a tree, you’d stand a good chance of dying if you were traveling at around 20 miles per hour. Now, we’re seeing survivors even above 40 miles per hour.”
That’s the end of the good news from Lt. Bates.
He explains what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has seen in the lab and from evidence provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) examining thousands of deadly accidents.
“You almost never hit an object squarely,” Bates continues. “That’s a serious problem, because the primary safety device in the cockpit of your car, besides of course the seatbelt, is the front airbag. When you’re going 40 miles per hour, you don’t realize you’re traveling at 58 feet per second.”
It’s not just the car traveling that fast, it’s you, essentially traveling through space at that speed. If your car hits a telephone pole or another car at that velocity, your body will still hurtle forward; meanwhile, the car is decelerating rapidly.
Worse, and most catastrophically, if the impact wasn’t square, now the car is starting to rotate, and that rotation is exceedingly harmful, both to your car and to you.
THE SCIENCE OF A HIGH-SPEED HEAD-ON CRASH
In 2007, the IIHS examined evidence from the NHTSA that showed a very disquieting trend. David Zirby, the IIHS’s head research officer, says that their Moderate Overlap Test (where 40 percent of the front of the car engages a solid object) was designed to demonstrate what happens in most head-on accidents. They already knew these collisions were rarely dead-square, but the NHTSA’s database showed that when 25 percent or less of the front of the car took the brunt of the impact, the resulting injuries proved disproportionally fatal. Although a bit reductive, the IIHS’s findings suggest that the less the front of the car is involved, the more deadly the accidents are. Think sideswipes rather than head-ons. Think telephone pole or tree, smacked with just one headlight, but at a high speed.
”These were accidents that almost didn’t happen,” Zirby says.
To figure out what was going on, the IIHS devised its own tests, which eventually became the Small Overlap Test, first used systematically throughout the U.S. fleet in 2012.
The IIHS’s findings started to reveal, as far back as 2007, that these accidents were deadly because cars’ safety cells were designed as secondary accident mitigation. It’s the opposite of NASCAR, where an entire safety cell is built to withstand the violence, even if the front of the car breaks away. Passenger cars aren’t made that way, and these offset wrecks were showing why that’s so dangerous.
Let’s say a car hits a telephone pole off-center, with only 25 percent of one side of the bumper striking first. At the moment of initial impact, the frame rails—which essentially stick out from the firewall as extensions of the frame—are too far inboard of the impact to be engaged.
Missing the frame rails results in less deceleration time and a far more violent stop. “Just 40-50 milliseconds more deceleration time can be the difference between life and death,” says Christopher Puckett, accident analyst for Digits LLC and is a former state trooper for New York’s CRU.
Only a quarter of the mass ahead of the safety cell remains to absorb the impact, and that’s not enough. The impact then pushes right through the front wheel, driving the suspension backwards. Depending on the vehicle and its speed, this could collapse the steering column, buckle the A pillar (pushing it back toward the driver or front passenger), and if the accident is severe enough, begin to crimp the door frame, front floor section, and door rail.
THE DEADLY PART
If all of the above happened, you might still have decent odds of surviving. After running his own tests in the lab and researching NHTSA photographic evidence reports, Zirby has found that partial overlap accidents introduce rotational force.
Rotation makes you miss the airbag. Here’s why: “You’re now moving sideways relative to the car. When we slow down the film, we see the crash-test dummies miss or slide off the airbag. [The dummy] hits the A-pillar or the IP (instrument panel).” Zirby claims that if the steering column is engaged in the impact, it can make matters even worse. “The steering wheel takes off right, and the dummy takes off left.”
All of this is happening with your body still flying forward, maybe at 50 feet per second or more. The airbags blow, but you’re heading away from them, in most instances, toward either the center of the vehicle, or the A-pillar, or a window. You’re missing the airbags entirely. Meanwhile the car’s corners are caving in toward the front passengers.
WHAT THE HUMAN BODY CAN AND CANNOT SURVIVE
”It seems like several times a year we get to a car crash and someone is walking around outside the car, alive, and then they go home and die,” says Bates. The cause is a tear in an internal organ or vessel. “They’re bleeding out from the force of the crash,” Bates continues. He advises that anyone who’s experienced a serious car accident should go to the hospital immediately, despite feeling perfectly fine.
This kind of damage is more common for passengers who aren’t belted, Bates explains, because they’re more likely to be exposed to even greater deceleration. Either way, the rotation of the vehicle plays a role, and so does the ricochet off the solid object, which contributes to what Zirby calls “violent yawing.”
“It’s not uncommon for the car to have the initial impact and then spin backwards off the road or into another car or stationary object,” Zirby says. They’ve also seen seats break free from their moorings, or hit the dummy in the back of the head on the ricochet off the solid barrier, causing even more carnage.
Arnold Wheat, an ex-CRU officer with more than 30 years of experience for both Colorado and New York and author of several studies on car accidents, says that most of what you see is grimly obvious: A head strikes against the A-pillar, the window glazing, the steering wheel, or the dash.
EXPLOSIONS AND ENGINE EJECTIONS
Conspiracy theorists probably don’t want to hear it, but Puckett says he’s seen all sorts of mechanical combustions, from engine ejections to vehicle fires to cars sawed in half by stationary objects. “The engine is hot,” Puckett says. “There are any number of fluids that can ignite, and I’m sorry to say that [that] isn’t indicative of foul play.”
Wheat, Zirby, and Bates also corroborate Puckett’s conclusion; cars traveling at a high velocity slamming into hard objects aren’t really designed to prevent such violent ends. While engine ejections and explosions aren’t necessarily the norm, they aren’t as rare as most of us would guess.
“I think we’ve become complacent, where we think all this technology is going to save us no matter what,” says Bates. “But you have to keep in mind—there are crashes that are not survivable.”
THE FUTURE OF CAR CRASHES
Hitting a tree or a utility pole with a car is never going to have a positive outcome. Not hitting that tree, however, is a matter that might be decided by one very old form of technology: money.
Today, automobiles are frequently tethered to mobile phones via wired connections, Bluetooth, or both. Increasingly, insurers and law enforcement are subpoenaing both phone records and so-called “black boxes” from cars (already present in the majority of new models, and mandatory starting in September 2014) to piece together critical data from the time of an accident. This recorded data includes the speed of the car, whether the driver braked, how hard he or she braked, rotation of the wheel (to determine if the driver swerved or not), and, of course, whether the driver was texting or talking on the phone.
Distracted driving was cited as a huge concern by all of the CRU and ex-CRU investigators we spoke with, and most believe that, even if laws don’t mandate that these driver-behavior records be made available post-crash, insurance agencies will start demanding them. We see the seeds of this in the form of opt-in insurance products from companies like Progressive, which can capture driving data via a dongle that plugs into a car’s diagnostic port. Good drivers are rewarded with premium discounts. Though, it’s important to note that, at present, these particular programs do not use the data collected to increase premiums; drivers only see their rates stay the same or decrease (barring any accidents).
Whether this type of system could ever see widespread adoption in the U.S., either voluntarily or via insurance mandates, is still to be determined. Two significant hurdles, driver privacy concerns and differing state regulations regarding the use of insurer data loggers, would still need to be cleared.
HIGH-TECH AND LO-FI SOLUTIONS
1. Slow down.
In the built environment, a.k.a. city streets, driving like a maniac isn’t just oafish and illegal, it’s deadly. So it’s important to understand just how much force you’re dealing with in a car accident as speed increases.
With an increase in speed, that force goes up exponentially, not on a nice, smooth curve. The math is pretty simple: Divide the weight of the vehicle in half. Multiply that by the square of the velocity. In terms of kinetic energy, that translates as 45,464 foot-pounds for a 3400-pound car hitting a stationary obstacle at 20 mph. Plow the same car into a tree at 40 mph and the amount of energy quadruples to 181,855 foot-pounds. If you survive that, you’re just plain lucky, as the odds are very much against you.
As Bates points out, when cars travel in opposite directions, there’s far more danger. Add in roadside obstacles and that danger greatly increases again. Not speeding buys you precious reaction and deceleration time.
2. Turn off your mobile phone.
Now you know why extra braking time is so important. Puckett says just 40-50 milliseconds of dec
eleration time can save your life in the event of an impact. That’s just an eyeblink more time on the brake, a scant instant when you weren’t looking at a text on your phone but looking at the road. Bates says this is especially critical for teens. He and his wife bought his 18-year-old son a “dumb phone,” i.e., one that cannot receive texts. It’s for phone calls only, and naturally the officer doesn’t want his son talking on the phone while driving. “We have to not let these devices own us,” Bates says bluntly, noting that especially with teen drivers, the innocent smartphone is as deadly as a gun.
3. Pad roadside objects.
We’re not likely to see a day when every telephone pole in the built environment is padded, but at street corners and high-traffic zones it’s a fairly cheap solution. John Whittall, a retired NYS Trooper from the Collision Reconstruction Unit says that there are studies about the strength of telephone poles and Lt. Bates explains that ideally, poles would be designed to break or bend to help absorb the kinetic energy of an impact. Good luck convincing the utility companies of that. But even a small amount of padding would save lives, because any extra deceleration time afforded is critical.
4. Buy the right car.
IIHS’s Zirby explains that the organization’s small overlap test has resulted in carmakers redesigning their vehicles with stronger safety cells. He says that when the outfit began its testing protocol, they didn’t have any direct way to measure the strength of that cell. That’s what the 25 percent standard is now doing. As a result, some cars are starting to perform better in this test because safety cells are being reinforced.
5. Hope for better airbags.
The IIHS’s findings suggest a change that every carmaker should implement as soon as possible—designing curtain airbags that cover the entire window and A pillar, since the oblique nature of small overlap crashes forces passengers outboard. For now, even cars with curtain airbags aren’t covering enough of the interior, since they were initially designed to help in the event of direct side impacts and rollovers.
Ultimately, there’s no simple, magical solution that will ensure your safety in a car crash. Driver training and good practices behind the wheel are a start. Advancements in vehicle and safety technology help as well. Indeed, modern cars are safer than ever, but once they leave the road, all bets are off. Your car may be engineered to battle the laws of physics to protect you during a crash, but unfortunately, not all battles are winnable.
This article is care of www.road&trackmagazine.com and the original article can be found here