A disturbing lack of understanding of cause of death has been exhibited both police and all else who failed to question how and why fatal injuries occurred to an occupant whose while struck a guardrail on Hwy 403 near Hamilton Ontario on August 22, 2022. The story has been revisited now because on February 1, 2023 the OPP has announced on their Twitter account that charges of Careless Driving Causing Death have been laid against the surviving driver. We will never know what factors came into play in this decision and that is not the focus of the concern. Rather the focus should have been on the reasonableness of occupants sustaining critical and fatal injuries from an impact of a guardrail.
When a driver loses control of a vehicle at highway speed there can be many dangerous possibilities that can develop. The vehicle may exit the lane of travel and strike an opposing vehicle. Alternatively, if no other vehicle exists the loss-of-control vehicle may exit the roadway. There are many dangerous things existing along any roadway. In the past, before Electronic Stability Control (ESC), almost all loss-of-control events caused a vehicle to enter a yaw, or a rotation about the vehicle’s vertical centre-of-gravity. Such a rotation would inevitably cause the vehicle to reach a magnitude of rotation that was almost 90 degrees. At this point the vehicle’s tires would engage enough resistance that the vehicle would begin to rollover. The deceleration in a rollover is generally benign and that is not what makes it dangerous. It is that when a vehicle rolls over it exposes the softer, upper portions of the windows and roof to the stiffer environment and deformation of the vehicle structure is easy to achieve. If this is a “soft” rollover with minimal deformation the occupants, if wearing their seatbelts properly, can ride-down the collision with minimal likelihood of significant injury. However if the vehicle strikes something stiff or immovable the story is much different. Major injuries occur in those instances.
In some instances a loss-of-control vehicle does not reach a point of rollover but strikes something while still upright. This is something that occurs more frequently now that ESC keeps the vehicle pointing generally in the direction it is moving. So the vehicle may still be out-of-control of the driver but at least its pointing angle is more favourable if an impact should occur. The safety standards available in frontal impact are far superior to those in a side impact, principally because there is more structure at a vehicle’s front end where energy dissipation can occur in a controlled manner. So in most cases the actions of ESC control are beneficial.
There are many dangers such a trees, poles, rocks and embankments along roadsides that can bring a vehicle to a sudden stop in a dreadful hurry. Sometimes in as little as a 1/10th of a second. So where such dangerous roadside features exist it makes sense to erect more forgiving structures prior to where those dangers exist. And erection of those structures are more likely to done along highways where there are high traffic volumes.
Along expressways such as Highway 403 there should be the maximum “level of service” which is a term commonly used to discuss how much protection will be implemented in road design. Guard (Guide) rails are one of those protections that are stalled on expressways so that vehicles striking them will encounter a more beneficial ride-down of an impact.
Guardrails have purposeful “failures” designed into them. They are designed to buckle, deform and be displaced for the purpose of removing the kinetic energy possessed by the striking vehicle. Wooden anchorage posts may be pushed and then subsequently fractured to allow the rail to be displaced by the impacting vehicle. This longer time and distance of contact is what reduces the overall peaks of “deceleration” (technically “negative acceleration”) that would otherwise be experienced by the impacting vehicle and ultimately by the occupant in the “second collision”. The second collision refers to the impact of the occupant’s body with the vehicle interior. Generally speaking guardrails are not supposed to create decelerations of a vehicle that are life-threating, and why would they? Clearly if the guardrail should produce such decelerations then why bother to pay the price of installing them?
In their original description of the collision on Hwy 403, the OPP never mentioned that the vehicle struck anything else except the guardrail. The photo that they posted on their Twitter site was of poor quality. No one would be able to decipher the specifics of the damage to the car, the damage to the guardrail and how the two interacted. And no one questioned these results. The investigating police never mentioned that fatal injuries should not occur from impacting a guardrail. No one in the official news media raised the issue. And the numerous comments coming from the general public demonstrated that they had no understanding of the issue.