Do vehicle fires represent a growing safety problem when vehicles collide? Not only is an answer unavailable but the question is not being asked. This despite an alarming number of vehicle fires that keep occurring during collisions.
The most recent vehicle fire occurred when a transport truck and SUV collided on Highbury Ave just north of Eight Mile Road, just north of the city limits of London, Ontario. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) made the first report of the incident via their Twitter account, informing drivers that they should stay away from the area. They also provided two photos, one shown above, and the other shown below.
While it is early in the investigation and therefore it may be understandable that little information would be available, the pattern from many previous fire incidents is that no meaningful information is likely to be disclosed to the public about the relevance the fire to the death of one of the drivers. The claim is often made that the public does not need to know this information or that it needs to be kept from the public’s knowledge to protect the sensitivities of the families involved. Many safety problems of the past have existed for years because information that could have triggered an revelation and correction of the problem was kept from the public’s knowledge.
With respect to vehicle fires they should not be accepted as an inevitable outcome. Government standards exist that require a minimum level of protection with respect to design and manufacture so that the potential is kept to a minimum. Obviously the effectiveness of advanced safety systems that have populated modern vehicles is non-existent when a fire engulfs a vehicle and trapped occupants inside. The source of a vehicle fire needs to be thoroughly investigated by persons who are competent in identifying the source. No investigation can be deemed appropriate when it is not performed by a person qualified in detecting the fire source. Ultimately information about any vehicle fire should be filed with Transport Canada or NHTSA in the U.S. so that trends can be identified. It should not be left unknown whether such procedures have been followed by police investigators. At present there is little information in any official, public documentations of collisions as to the prevalence of fires and if they are becoming more common.
Modern vehicles have an increased need for electronics and more powerful electronic circuits and batteries. When those circuits are damaged they can be the “match that lights the flame”. It is therefore extremely important to maintain vigilance whether such sources are becoming more prevalent. There appear to be more incidents of vehicles catching fire even when they are not involved in collision but are simply sitting in a parking lot or being driven on a roadway. These incidents continue to be ignored by police and news media when no injuries have occurred. Yet they can be the canaries the coal mine that could lead to preventing a future fatality.
As shown in the above photos a vehicle fire can spread to other vehicles leading to potential large scale dangers. This further indicates the very important need to understand how and why a fire was initiated.
Speed likely contributed to a loss-of-control of the Audi but it was the “Can-Opener” separation of its structure that was likely a major factor in the deaths of three of its occupants in a July 3, 2020 Edmonton Alberta crash.
The results of vast numbers of controlled crashes performed by various government agencies and research institutions shows that a vehicle travelling at 50 km/h will sustain about 40 centimetres of crush on its front end when it strikes an immovable barrier. This is a classic demonstration of the kinetic energy that exists while a vehicle is in motion and how that energy must be dissipated (“gotten rid of”) in order to come to rest.
In a vast number of real-life, single vehicle collisions, a vehicle is usually travelling too fast as it rounds a curve and the driver begins to take braking and steering actions when the vehicle begins to go out of control. During this long time and distance speed (and kinetic energy) is lost as the vehicle yaws (fish-tails or drifts) about its vertical axis. Next an impact occurs and more speed (and more kinetic energy) is lost. Finally the vehicle is redirected by the impact and slides or tumbles for an additional time and distance to its final rest position as all of its speed (and all of its kinetic energy) is lost at final rest.
In modern times investigators can simply download event data from an event data recorder (EDR or “black box”) in order to find out precise information about what happened during a crash. But that information is never made available to news agencies and the public. Instead what the public is told is that speed, alcohol or driver distraction were likely factors in the crash long before any objective data is analysed from the EDR . If other factors were involved the public will never know about them.
In the above photo we can estimate what speed might have been involved independent of any data from the EDR. The traditional method is to work backwards from the final rest position of the vehicle and consider how much kinetic energy could have been dissipated along each step of the vehicle’s motion leading back to where the incident began. The primary issue of interest in the present scenario is the conclusion that the vehicle’s speed caused the deaths of three of the vehicle’s four occupants (the driver apparently survived). Let us say that someone believed the vehicle was travelling at the excessive speed of 80 km/h when it struck the Starbucks building.
Working backwards from the vehicle’s final rest position we might estimate that the vehicle travelled about a car length from its point of impact with the Starbucks building to its final rest position. Even if all 4 wheels were locked during this motion of about 5 metres a speed only about 30 km/h would be lost. If all of the vehicle’s four wheels were not locked (more likely scenario) and a deceleration equal to only 2 wheels being locked is applied, the speed loss becomes only about 25 km/h. So where does the remaining (80-30) speed loss come from? It must come from the evidence of damage to the car and destruction of the building. That becomes more complicated because we do not know the characteristics of the buildings structure. But given that Sir Issac Newton has told us that forces in an impact must be equal and opposite, we can judge that the severity of the damage on the car must provide some clue as to the severity of the impact and the speed lost.
One clue is to review the numerous results of other impacts where a vehicle has crashed into a modern, retail or residential building. This is common in parking lots or city streets when a driver mistakes the accelerator pedal for the brake. We see numerous photos of such instances where there appears to be considerable breakage of glass and bricks but the car remains relatively “uncrushed” and the driver is only shook up. Some examples are shown below.
These numerous instances tell of the nature of the structure of these buildings and the fact that they are brittle and fall apart at relatively low forces.In a similar manner the photo below shows the extent of damage to the modern structure of the Starbucks building at the Edmonton multi-fatal crash site. One can see that the structure is not much different from those shown in the previous examples above.
The photo below shows that the structure of the Starbucks building was made up of glass and its frames along with a door and some brickwork at the bottom.
The photo below shows how the structure of the Audi appears to have been opened up and separated as if by a can opener and is not consistent with the type of damage that has occured from other building impacts. It is known that vehicles have weak spots that when struck can cause the structure to rupture/separate. This is rarely discussed as many persons who are responsible for driver safety would have much explaining to do.
The characteristics of this damage to the Audi have not been discussed but are not consistent with a high speed at the time of contact with the building. Such a high speed impact should have demonstrated itself in more damage to the building.
While it may be true that the Audi was speeding at the time that its driver lost control in the curve, much of its speed could have been lost on approach to the impact with the Starbucks building. Other critical facts such as the use of seat-belts would also need to be known to understand why the three occupants of this vehicle sustained their fatal injuries.
In an assessment of what matters, it is important to recognize the difference between what caused a collision and what caused the injuries to the occupants inside the striking vehicle. The causes are rarely the same. In any impact there are at least two impacts. The first is between the vehicle and its environment (another vehicle, a tree, a building etc.). The second impact is between the occupant and the vehicle interior (unless there is a complete, undisturbed ejection). One might also continue to note that a third impact might be between the body and individual organs ( such as an aorta tear during high deceleration). Approaches such as these can help investigators in recognizing what factors need to be considered in any collision reconstruction.
A seemingly spectacular video clip has been shown of a car going out of control on Williams Parkway in Brampton, Ontario, crashing through a roadside fence, rolling over multiple times and striking a parked car. The best that can be said is that no one was killed, although that itself could be classified as a modern miracle. Many crashes on any professional racing circuit are not much more dramatic. However such videos can attract the attention of many admirers who might think this could be fun: “If this driver could do it maybe I can too”. While this is complete foolishness it is also an opportunity to grasp the attention of these admirers and provide a step-by-step analysis of why this is not to be admired. Over and over again we have opportunities like these to explain the cause of serious injury and death but we do not. It is not a case of freightening speeders but providing them with objective, scientific information as, in many instances, reducing ignorance can be a road safety tool.
Starting on July 6th no demerit points will be added if you are caught by Toronto’s speed cameras, only a fine will apply. So If you are the owner of a Ferrari and you have some wealth, will you care if you have to pay a $600 fine? Likely not. But the owner of a beat-up, old, economy car will likely feel the pinch. This is the problem.
It is not like the politicians in Toronto are not aware of the discrepancy, but do they have a reasonable explanation why it exists? Are the news media independent enough to raise this question?
Since demerit points may be the only way to affect rich drivers, is there some way to apply demerit points to owners? Perhaps this could influence those owners to be more judicious about who drives their vehicle. If not, congratulations to all you rich people, you won the traffic lottery!
On June 2, 2020 Gorski Consulting conducted multiple-video camera documentations of northbound cyclists travelling along the City of London multi-use path approaching the underpass at Trafalgar Road. Video analysis has now been completed and the results have been summarized in an article entitled “Speed of Recreational Cyclists on Down-slope of Trafalgar Bike Path” which can be accessed via the link below: