Medical episodes are convenient explanations for fatal collisions. But they are not always the correct explanations.

The cause of a double-fatal incident where vehicle was driven into Lake Ontario in Burlington, Ontario, was announced by Halton Regional Police. It was stated that “Medical factors may have contributed to this incident and the coroner has listed a medical condition involving the heart as the cause of death on the preliminary report”. It was said that this conclusion was consistent with the observation of a witness who “…described the driver as appearing to either be suffering a medical issue or being panicked, noting the man’s arms were locked on the steering wheel”. Compelling evidence indeed. But what demeanor would be expected from anyone if they knew they were headed toward a body of water at high speed but could not prevent the occurrence?

As the population of drivers ages, there is an understandable increase in the number of reported fatal collisions related to medical conditions. On the other hand, as the complexity of vehicle technology increases there is also a greater difficulty in detecting whether that technology was a cause of a crash.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety warns of knowledge gap between technology and driver comprehension.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) published an article in June 2019 issue of their Status Report which provides some indication of the confusion between what drivers believe about automation technology and the reality of what the technology actually does. The example used involved questions put to drivers about the meaning of various driver automation functions of new vehicles. The article indicated:

” Vehicles are getting increasingly sophisticated, with more and more of them able to stay in a lane and maintain speed and following distance with minimal driver input. But this kind of automation has limitations that can be tricky for drivers to grasp…”

That “trickiness” does not just apply to drivers, it also applies to investigators¬† who are increasingly relied upon to provide a definitive answer about the cause of a crash without having sufficient knowledge about the inner workings of advanced vehicles.

Sudden unintended acceleration is often blamed on foot pedal error without sufficient knowledge or investigation about possible vehicle malfunctions. (Photo by Peel Region Paramedics of house impact, July 7, 2019 in Mississauga, Ontario)

Sudden unintended acceleration is a frequent incident that leads to serious collisions and this is commonly attributed to driver foot pedal error. Yet those who make that determination have limited knowledge about the inner workings of the modules and sensors that control modern vehicles. Whether a vehicle plunges into a house, drives into roadside water or collides with another vehicle, the pre-crash functioning of steering, acceleration and braking may be stored by various onboard recorders and can sometimes be downloaded and evaluated. Conversely, not all the data that is stored is available to investigators as some is viewed a proprietary to the manufacturer. When the manufacturer is the only one who can access the full data it cannot be certain whether certain tell-tale problems will be detected by investigators working with a limited set of data.

What is often sufficient to the general public is that a seemingly knowledgeable person with a uniform, credentials and an important title reports that he/she has conducted an investigation and has drawn a conclusion. While the basis for the conclusion is rarely known.

An impressionable old mother was once asked about the suitability of her perspective son-in-law and she remarked “Well, I don’t know what he does, but he carries a briefcase”.