Although great improvements in vehicle design have saved many lives, for those incidents where design has reached its limit, modern collision avoidance is taking a giant step forward.

The classic angle collision with direct impact to a driver’s door is an example where vehicle design is greatly challenged. In collisions that are potentially fatal there is substantial opportunity to protect occupants when the direct contact is to a broad portion of a vehicle’s front end. Much of that opportunity has been taken care of with front end crush zones, prevention of intrusion into the occupant space, and protection systems such as seat belts and air bags. The fact that a car or light truck may have up to 1.5 metres of structure ahead of the occupant compartment to dispose of during a head-on collision is significant. It has resulted in the development of an ingenious array of successful devices that protect occupants from fatal collisions that were unheard of just four decades earlier. But that success has its limits in side impacts where the width of usable structure is far less.

The OPP have provided a couple of photos of a recent fatal collision that exemplifies the extent of the difficulty. it was reported that a 77-year-old driver of the sedan shown the photo below sustained fatal injuries when the van struck the sedan in the driver’s side.

Results of a fatal collision on Highway 7 reported by the OPP.

This would not be listed in the category of the most severe side impacts, yet it was not minor. The most crucial fact is that the front end of the van penetrated into the driver’s door of the sedan. The location of that direct damage is the deciding factor. If the direct contact was just one metre further toward the rear we would not be discussing this as a fatal collision.

The photo below shows that the driver’s door of the sedan has been removed, likely because emergency personnel had to attend to the injured driver. The steering wheel air bag has deployed. Yet there is no evidence that a side curtain has deployed. This in an important factor.

The deployment of side curtains is necessary for precisely these kinds of collisions. The front end of a van is taller than a typical passenger car. Therefore when it impacts the driver’s door the hood of the van is located up higher into the driver’s side window when the crush occurs. Meanwhile the head of sedan driver moves in opposition to the impact force, or toward the location of the front edge of the hood of the van. This typically causes the head of the driver to strike the intruding front edge of the hood and it results in serious or fatal injuries. The deployment of a side curtain is designed to provide a protective wall to prevent that head contact. Thus the deployment of a side curtain might have been a critical factor in this incident. Unfortunately the driver of this sedan was a 77-year-old female and her likely frailty might also have been a factor.

So this discussion has provided an indication of the problem that, when a driver’s door is struck, it is difficult to protect the driver from significant injury, even with the deployment of a side curtain. This has been a fact for many decades. But there is new technology being developed that could make a drastic improvement on the results of collisions like these, even for the frail elderly.

When vehicle design has reached its limit new technology that senses the presence of vehicles in the vicinity of each other means that preventive actions can be taken automatically without any driver’s involvement. Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) is such a technology. In the example case shown above, the van would be braked automatically long before the driver recognized the need to do so. This would reduce the severity of the impact or perhaps prevent it altogether. More generally, the development of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications means that vehicles can “talk” to each other and transfer a variety of critical information.

The question remains whether this technology can operate reliably in the vast number of complex collision scenarios that might exist.¬†Drawbacks to this technology are several. As vehicle “knowledge” increases there is a need to ensure that it not become intrusive and used for nefarious purposes. As these systems become more complex those who design and access their functioning become fewer. Thus the power to keep their functioning secret becomes ever greater. There has to be some assurance to the public that they can stay informed when these systems fail or perform in a manner that is illegal.

Secondly when these advanced systems gather information there is a threat that personal information can be gathered and used without the driver’s/owner’s permission. Without control this could open a massive Pandora’s Box of Peeping Toms.

In all, whenever technology advances improvements are experienced while new dangers and potential failures are brought with them. Getting it right means our society encourages development of new technology while also controlling its misuse and exposure to new dangers.