Informing the public about deadly dangers must be an unquestioned responsibility of those who have exclusive information about those dangers. That responsibility was needed in the latest fatal collision on Derry Road in Mississauga, Ontario when a passenger car rear-ended a stopped transit bus. Even though another fatal collision could occur because nothing will be changed, police and news media failed to inform the public of the deadly danger that may have been a factor in the death of a male driver of the car. Clearly an immediate concern had to revolve around the visibility of the transit bus that was stopped at a bus stop in a live lane that had a posted maximum speed of 70 km/h. Anyone who has performed traffic studies (such as those performed by Gorski Consulting) would recognize that about 20 per cent of drivers could be travelling at or above 90 km/h in a zone posted with a maximum speed of 70 km/h. Therefore was it safe to place a bus stop in such a live lane?
There has been no information provided about what conditions existed at the time of collision except that the road surface was dry. What levels of artificial illumination were available in the vicinity of the stopped bus remains unknown.
A photo provided by the CBC showed the bus and striking vehicle at their final rest positions. This photo showed that the bus did not have its emergency flashing lights activated at the time that the photo was taken. Was this just coincidence such that someone turned them off after the collision? Or did the bus not have its lights activated at time time of the crash? For news reporters who interview police that would have been an important question to ask. However police policy in every known jurisdiction has now created “spokespersons” – persons who are trained to give no details and to answer questions in a roundabout way while concealing information that, ethically, the public has a right to know. So, if a police spokesperson were asked whether there is a present danger that another transit bus could be rear-ended in night-time conditions would he or she reply that the concern exists? Likely not. What is always said is that the investigation is ongoing and that investigators are gathering evidence. Evidence that will rarely be shared with the public whose lives might be threatened.
Up to now there has been no indication from police that the deceased driver was impaired by alcohol or drugs. But even if that were so that does not absolve official agencies from pointing out the danger to anyone whose abilities may not be impaired.
Why this is mentioned is due to previous analysis conducted by Gorski Consulting. For example Gorski Consulting conducted an analysis of a similar incident, not too far from the present site, where a serious, rear-end impact occurred due to a visibility obstruction caused by the presence of heavy trucks. In short, due to the length, width and height of heavy trucks they create large barriers and when two or three of these trucks are travelling close behind each other, like they often do, they create a wall that obstructs visibility ahead for a substantial distance. This is particularly crucial on major arterials such as Derry Road where there are 3 travel lanes. Videotaped observations of traffic on such roads by Gorski Consulting has shown that lane changes are very common and those lane changes do not always occur toward the left, but lane changes toward the right are just as common. What this means is that when slow-moving, heavy trucks move into a left or middle lane, drivers following behind will move into the right lane to pass the slower vehicles without being able to see if that right lane is blocked. This is precisely the kind of condition that could have occurred at the site of the present fatal collision – regardless of driver impairment. Even if the bus had its emergency lights (“flashers”) activated a driver, sitting on the left side of a car’s interior, would not be able to see the road ahead, past the rear end of a truck trailer, in sufficient time to avoid a collision at the heightened speeds involved.
Yet municipal staff create such dangerous scenarios with respect to bus stops without being made accountable for their actions. Just before I resigned my position on the City of London Transportation Advisory Committee I was in attendance when City Staff gave a presentation about proposed widening of an arterial road on which transit buses would be travelling. One of the problems I observed was that there were no plans for the installation of bus bays that would allow buses to be steered out of the curb lane and therefore allow traffic to pass the bus without changing lanes. I asked the city presenter this simple question: “Do I understand correctly that you are not intending to provide a bus bay at this location and that the bus will stop within the curb lane?” The answer was given in the affirmation without further explanation. It was only several minutes later, when another staffer recognized the concerned looks of other advisory committee members, that this staffer explained that the reason why bus bays were no longer being recommended in London is because, through a discussion with representatives of the London Transit Commission it was learned that bus drivers were having difficulty re-entering a curb lane and this delay was affecting their schedules. Yet the delay to transit buses should not be the only factor in this decision. Clearly vehicles attempting to pass a stopped transit bus will change lanes and often there are conflicts as many more vehicles end up making lane changes and this causes a potential for collisions. But because those collisions can be blamed on the erroneous decisions of private citizens it becomes of no importance to city staffers because the City will not be held responsible for those collisions. And so these are the kinds of problems that are enabled when there is no oversight into actions and decisions of city staff.
…and there are other issues.
Airbags, like seatbelts, have been shown to provide tremendous benefit to our society and this is why Gorski Consulting has continued to support their installation. But when problems are detected that expose the public to needless danger those problems need to be publicly exposed so that they are corrected. Despite that the truth may be inconvenient it must be revealed because we value human life more than we fear that inconvenience. Yet there are numerous persons in our society who continue to believe that the “end justifies the means” and therefore any and all means are justified. So problems associated with such life-saving technology such as airbags and seatbelts are justifiably hidden.
In the present case, broad frontal impacts, at 50 km/h (30 mph) into an immovable barrier (transit bus) are precisely the kinds of impacts that have been studied in detail since the 1960s evolution of the U.S. NHTSA and Transport Canada’s Road Safety Branch. Before we recognized that there was a difference between crash tests and real-life collisions we determined that we must manufacture a vehicle where the driver withstands this broad frontal impact. Thus, of all the unique collision scenarios that exist in the real world a driver is most protected in a broad frontal impact into an immovable barrier.
So what happened in our real-life collision? This was as broad and frontal as any crash could be. And, although the crush to the front end of the car was substantial, many controlled tests have demonstrated that, accompanied by airbags and pre-tensioned seat-belts a driver should be able to survive a tremendous change-in-velocity, provided that there is no significant structural intrusion into the occupant space. So again we ask, what happened here? The single photo (even though insufficient) seems to show that there was no meaningful structural intrusion. So why did this 45-year-old male driver die?
Well, unlike controlled crash tests there is a slight but important difference that could be a critical factor but was not mentioned by either the police nor news media. It has to do with the vertical level of crush on the front end of the car and what that does to the timing of deployment of an airbag. Airbags need to be aniticipitory to a large degree because of the need to get them fully inflated before the body of the driver reaches them during the crash. As an example, an unrestrained driver’s body begins to move forward in relation to the vehicle interior commencing at about 60 milli-seconds. There are 1000 milli-seconds in one second. So this is a very short time. Meanwhile an airbag must commence deployment and become fully deployed before the body of the occupant reaches it. So this is a very short time to begin and complete this inflation. And this is why the inflation must be equivalent to an “explosion”. An algorithm within an airbag control module studies the crash pulse which eventually leads to a decision about how airbag deployment takes place. Such algorithms have problems when stiff areas of a vehicle’s front end, such as the bumper, are not the major part of the crushing mechanism. The rear bumper of the bus was high enough that the front bumper of the car was not fully engaged in the crush of the vehicle. This is accentuated by maximum braking that drops the vertical height of a car bumper. The crush that takes place above the bumper is to a softer portion of the structure where the rate of change in acceleration (called “jerk”) is not high enough to produce an immediate firing of the airbag. In other words the airbag fires late when the driver’s body has already moved into a position that is too close to the airbag. The driver is then killed, not necessarily or primarily, by the impact force, but by the force exerted by the exploding airbag. This is an unwanted outcome. It is not wanted by manufacturers, government agencies, police, or anyone who might have to do something about the problem. The best that can be done is to hide the problem and that is often what is done. The end justifies the means. If we hide the fact that a problem exists the public will continue to be confident about the safety of airbags and that is the justified end. But is that really the best approach?
So did this unfortunate driver die because of being out of position (OOP) when the airbag deployed. It will never be publicly revealed and therefore actions to improve airbag performance will continue at a slower pace. And here is the problem. When you do not identify a problem for which there is no immediate or simple fix, much like climate change, or other difficult issues, you slow down the timing and efficiency of its correction.
But there are greater problems that are generated when members of the public detect the problems that are being hidden. Once that happens they lose confidence in those agencies who have hidden the problem. When that happens it becomes much harder to correct the problem because no matter what is said it is no longer believed. It is commonly believed that honesty is for fools and losers and our society thrives on manipulation and deceit. What we have lost is the understanding that truth and transparency can be a strategic advantage to our functioning. Being known as an entity that can be relied upon is a powerful possession in the hands of those who work for the public’s interest.