Knowing what a typical pattern of damage in a head-on collision should look like can be useful in understanding what happened seconds before an impact.
As I have measured damaged vehicles from hundreds of severe frontal impacts I have also created large scale diagrams and matched “points of mutual contact” that can be used to follow the progress of the motion between initial contact and separation of the vehicles. During these detailed studies I developed the understanding that there are typical and common patterns of crush and they are correlated to some pre-collision happenings. A knowledge of these facts can help investigators to understand what evidence is likely to exist and what needs to be documented before it is lost. But this knowledge can also be used by the general public to evaluate when something shown in photos of police and official news media is not exactly as it has been reported. These interpretations are not foolproof nor are the damage patterns absolutely distinct from one another. Generally these interpretations cannot stand alone unless there is some very specific and obvious evidence that indisputably leaves no other interpretations. While such singular, indisputable evidence is not common it is also not wise to ignore the obvious fact when it exists.
For the purposes of education I have selected a recent fatal head-on where the OPP have made the photograph of the two vehicles public. Before continuing on I want to acknowledge the obvious fact that this was a tragic event where someone has lost their life and there are family and persons who are greatly affected by this tragedy. On the other hand there are no convenient times or ways to discuss these important matters. Education is an important element in preventing future tragedies and in providing justice to those who may be wronged by a system of justice that sometimes acts like a bull in a china shop.
So below is the noted photo of the two vehicles at their final rest positions. Many pages of detailed comment can be made about this happening and this will simply lose the readers’ attention so I will be brief.
I have often discussed previous incidents where the patterns of damage are unusual, at best, and may not reflect the description provided to the public. In proceeding to describe what the damage should look like it becomes difficult to provide that visual in words. So the above photo helps in that it shows the most common form of crush that occurs in a severe head-on collision. It shows the fact that head-on collisions that occur on highways, at highway speeds, create offset contacts. What I mean is that the vehicles do not strike each other, license plate to license plate, but that the direct contact is offset. In a high percentage of impacts the offset of the direct damage is to the left. In other words there is direct contact to the driver’s side of the front end and there is no direct damage toward the passenger’s side of the front end. Next, both vehicles will exhibit very similar patterns of damage/crush. The maximum crush will be at the left corner of the both vehicles and there will be progressively less crush toward the right until the point where there is a major “deflection point” where the right corners of the vehicles exist and the crush suddenly becomes much less. The damage to the right of this deflection point is typically “induced damage” and is differentiated from the “direct damage” in many ways.
Next we will note that the right front corners of both vehicles will be pulled to the left. This happening is quite obvious in both vehicles shown in the above photo. This pattern of (rather) identical damage patterns has been previously described as “book ends” in that both vehicles look the same. This pattern of damage is most commonly associated with instances where one driver may be involved in a passing motion and is unable to return to his/her own vehicle in time and the opposing driver has not applied sufficient counter-steering to make a large difference. Thus both vehicles are coming toward each other at 180 degrees. The actual approach angle in the example shown above cannot be known because we cannot see the left sides of the vehicles and that is crucially important. So let’s leave this discussion as it is for now so as not to lose the readers’ attention.
Now, when we do not see this very common pattern of damage and someone talks about a passing motion with no driver reaction then our ears should begin to perk up and we should look a little closer. We do not conclude that there is something wrong in what we are told, but we simply pay more attention to what else might be involved. In reality this discussion becomes much more complicated but at least, for now, we have observed what is the most common and typical pattern of damage in a serious head-on collision.
The fact that a driver was drunk seems to make all the difference in a vehicle fire. That would seem to be the case in a collision on Oxford Street at Guildwood Blvd in London yesterday evening, October 5, 2019. An unidentified passenger vehicle struck a lamp standard on a centre median of Oxford Street and continued onto a lawn where it came to rest.
Witnesses claimed that just before the impact the driver was “swerving all over the road”. After the impact witnesses removed the driver from the vehicle before it went up in flames. The driver was charged with impaired operation of a motor vehicle and, since there were no serious injuries it was deemed a matter of minimal importance.
Photos of the front end of the vehicle showed a prominent, narrow crush in the centre of the bumper which also reached the front edge of the hood. Such crush would be viewed as moderate at least. Certainly not a situation where a fire should have been inevitable. So why did the fire start? Is that not a relevant question? What if the vehicle was not occupied by an impaired driver but by a mother transporting three of her children? What if there were not witnesses to remove the mother or the children? Would that not be a tremendous tragedy? So why is this not relevant? The fact that no one was seriously injured or burned to death was simple circumstance and luck. Officials should not be relying on circumstance and luck to protect the public as obviously that luck will change. Incidents like these must be documented throughout Ontario and Canada and they must be investigated to make sure we are not causing unnecessary injuries and deaths.
Another fatality related to a post-collision fire has occurred this morning, October 3, 2019, on Simcoe Street just north of its intersection with Old Simcoe Road, north of Oshawa, Ontario. While police reported that this was a head-on collision it was not quite so. A white pick-up truck had been heading northbound on Simcoe Street when its driver likely lost directional control of the truck causing it to rotate into the southbound lane and into the path of a white Volkswagen, reportedly occupied by an elderly couple. There was substantial, direct-contact crush across the complete front end of the southbound car confirming that it was not a typical, front-end to front-end impact. Typical front-end to front-end impacts would involve off-sets of the striking ends and therefore you would see more crush at one corner than the other, there would be bowing of the non-contacted corner and the profile between the direct and induced damage would be clearly imprinted in the vehicle’s front end. The characteristics of damage on the car’s front end was indicative of an impact to the side of the Pick-up and this could be confirmed by looking at the bowed right side of the Pick-up even though police had covered it in a tarp.
A roadside interview of Constable George Tudos, representing Durham Regional Police, confirmed what would be expected in the manner that the police investigation was carried out. Instead of focusing on why the Pick-up truck caught fire and therefore caused the fatal injuries to its driver, Constable Tudos focused the media’s attention on their attempts to determine if speed, alcohol or slippery road conditions may have led to the collision. This is typical of the actions of police who fail to understand the importance of collision-related fires and the need to document them so they may be prevented.
Earlier today Gorski Consulting reported how another, double-fatal collision occurred on Hwy 406 in the Thorold area and where the possibility of a fire leading to the deaths of two occupants was not properly discussed. When police do not provide the essential information, and when news media no longer have the investigative capabilities to conduct their own inquiries, the public is kept in the dark. Post-collision fires appear to be occurring in more numbers than they did years before yet no one who has the capability to identify the extent of the problem.
We must stop hiding fire deaths in collisions because this prevents action from being taken that might prevent future deaths. Another example of this problem relates to a head-on collision on Highway 406 at Glendale Ave near Thorold, Ontario.The OPP reported that a vehicle was travelling the wrong way on Highway 406 which is an access-controlled, freeway. The vehicle collided, head-on with an SUV. In their brief Twitter message the OPP provided the photo below showing the damage caused to the wrong way vehicle.
While the above photo shows that the wrong-way vehicle sustained substantial crush that should not be the focus of the OPP’s reports to media. Two persons died in the SUV yet, the media spokesperson for the OPP, Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, was quoted as saying “The vehicle that was going the proper way ended up starting on fire. The two occupants in that vehicle were pronounced dead at the scene”. There was no connection made by Sergeant Schmidt, that would properly inform the public whether the reason why the two occupants of the other vehicle died was because their vehicle caught fire. That is an important point. Because if they would have survived, except for the fire, then the commencement of the fire should be the primary matter of concern.
Two other photos are shown below which provide views of the burned vehicle but they are of minimal assistance as they do not show the occupant compartment where the persons died. If the occupant compartment was shown then one could assess whether there was sufficient crush that extended into where the occupants were seated. In that case we might suspect that the fire was not the cause of the deaths. But the two photos below do not provide such information.
It is well-known that larger mass and taller structure result in better odds of survival in a severe head-on collision. In the present example the wrong-way car was likely lighter and lower than the SUV and therefore the odds of the driver’s death were greater than the occupants of the SUV. Yet the reverse occurred. Thus this leads to the suspicion that the deaths did not occur from the impact force but likely from the subsequent fire. Yet the OPP has been silent on this issue.
There have been great advances in occupant protection in recent decades. This has likely been the greatest contributor to the large reductions in fatalities in motor vehicle crashes since the mid 1970s. Yet all these advancements become nullified when the occupants survive the crash but are then consumed by a vehicle fire that they cannot escape. This is why North American safety standards provide for testing of the flammability of vehicles after they have been involved in a controlled test. Yet there is a very limited amount of that testing and it cannot replicate the complicated collision scenarios that exist in the real world. Thus it is left to police investigations to capture those incidents of inappropriate fires through reports that they should be completing. Yet the official, standard, police report in Ontario does not provide a code which can be used to notate that a fire had occurred as part of a collision event. Thus there is no way for anyone to track this important and lethal potentially result.
This problem is becoming more important as vehicle fleets are changing with more computers, modules and general electrical power requirements. Everything from heated seats to windshield defrosters require electrical energy and this has resulted in changes in vehicle electrical systems. When a crash occurs it is essential to know whether those systems are increasing the potential of the eruption of a fire.
In a June, 2019 article by Lindsay Brooke, (“Protecting High-Voltage Circuits”) of the Automotive Engineering magazine, several enlightening comments were made regarding the increased electrical power of modern vehicles and the resultant increase in potential fires. In the opening paragraph the author provided this general observation:
“As OEMs develop their next-generation electrical architectures aimed at new hybrid, EV and autonomous vehicles, engineers are focused on delivering systems that are even more robust and “fail-safe” than those used today. Handling more power safely is a given, experts say, as more power-gobbling heated seats, electric turbos, active suspensions, lidars, onboard data processors and other safety sensors are added.”
Further in the article there was discussion of arcing:
“Arc intensity is directly related to voltage, current, and the rate of separation of the contact terminals. Arc event likelihood increases as voltage and current increase in circuit.”
“Arcing creates damage – and potentially fire” explained Eric Varton, chief engineer of advance development for Yazaki North America Core Engineering.
“He then showed video clips of two arcing events demonstrated in the Yazaki laboratory. The first demo, conducted with a 48-V, 11-amp; circuit – the load of a typical heated seat – shows a flash of near-MIG-weld intensity. The second demo was of a 500-V, 2-amp circuit – the arc erupted into fire in about four seconds”.
Unfortunately our collision reporting systems are not keeping up with these changes and advancements in automotive engineering and we may not be recognizing the extent of the fire problem. This era is accompanied by a reduction in independent reporting of collisions by the mass media and there are fewer and fewer investigative journalists and independent media outlets that have historically been the canaries in the public’s coal mines. Police are the only agency that now provides information about how and why a collision occurred. The police culture is one where the focus is on driver error at the expense of reporting other potential threats to public safety. This monopoly is simply unhealthy when new threats to public safety emerge and information about those threats is slow to reach the general public.
The public is not receiving the critical facts in multiple-fatality bus crashes that continue to exhibit obvious deficiencies in roadways and bus crashworthiness. This is clearly exemplified in the latest crash at Utah’s Bryce Canyon on Friday morning, September 20, 2019.
The photo, shown below, provides the clear fact that the bus rolled and slid on its side along the flat road surface and the only obstruction it encountered was the roadside guard rail. But look at the massive extent of intrusion of the bus roof into its occupant compartment. That is simply and clearly not acceptable.
When a vehicle rolls over on a level surface the rate of deceleration it experiences is about half a “g”. This rate is lower than what would be experienced if a driver applied maximum braking and slid to a stop. Would you expect multiple fatalities to persons sitting in a vehicle during maximum braking? Clearly not. So why should we expect multiple fatalities in this bus crash which likely sustained a deceleration lower than from maximum braking? Clearly and obviously the key issue is the collapse of the bus roof into the occupant compartment. A collapse that occurred during a simple rollover which should have resulted in minimal force to the bus structure. How much more obvious need the problem be before someone reports and accepts this fact?
As is typical, the details of how the fatalities occurred remain hidden. So it is possible that some occupants of the bus my have been ejected. That is a crucial shortcoming of bus passenger transportation in that seat-belt use for adults is critical to their survival. Although restraint use for children is just as vital, unsupervised children placed in “adult” seat-belts run the additional danger of sustaining abdominal injuries and thus this needs additional discussion.
But regardless of the restraint or seat-belt issue, how can we deem it acceptable that persons who might be properly restrained in their seats, are exposed to the completely unacceptable crush of the roof into where they are seated? This is not a monstrously, massive deceleration into a rock wall. It is a rollover that occurs over many seconds, during which the bus should be slowly reducing its speed and causing minimal forces on the properly restrained occupants inside. This result is simply appalling in the needless death that has been inflicted on innocent road users.