Do vehicle fires represent a growing safety problem when vehicles collide? Not only is an answer unavailable but the question is not being asked. This despite an alarming number of vehicle fires that keep occurring during collisions.
The most recent vehicle fire occurred when a transport truck and SUV collided on Highbury Ave just north of Eight Mile Road, just north of the city limits of London, Ontario. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) made the first report of the incident via their Twitter account, informing drivers that they should stay away from the area. They also provided two photos, one shown above, and the other shown below.
While it is early in the investigation and therefore it may be understandable that little information would be available, the pattern from many previous fire incidents is that no meaningful information is likely to be disclosed to the public about the relevance the fire to the death of one of the drivers. The claim is often made that the public does not need to know this information or that it needs to be kept from the public’s knowledge to protect the sensitivities of the families involved. Many safety problems of the past have existed for years because information that could have triggered an revelation and correction of the problem was kept from the public’s knowledge.
With respect to vehicle fires they should not be accepted as an inevitable outcome. Government standards exist that require a minimum level of protection with respect to design and manufacture so that the potential is kept to a minimum. Obviously the effectiveness of advanced safety systems that have populated modern vehicles is non-existent when a fire engulfs a vehicle and traps occupants inside. The source of a vehicle fire needs to be thoroughly investigated by persons who are competent in identifying the source. No investigation can be deemed appropriate when it is performed by a person not qualified in detecting the fire source. Ultimately information about any vehicle fire should be filed with Transport Canada or NHTSA in the U.S. so that trends can be identified. It should not be left unknown whether such procedures have been followed by police investigators. At present there is little information in any official, public documentations of collisions as to the prevalence of fires and if they are becoming more common.
Modern vehicles have an increased need for electronics and more powerful electronic circuits and batteries. When those circuits are damaged they can be the “match that lights the flame”. It is therefore extremely important to maintain vigilance whether such sources are becoming more prevalent. There appear to be more incidents of vehicles catching fire even when they are not involved in collision but are simply sitting in a parking lot or being driven on a roadway. These incidents continue to be ignored by police and news media when no injuries have occurred. Yet they can be the canaries the coal mine that could lead to preventing a future fatality.
As shown in the above photos a vehicle fire can spread to other vehicles leading to potential large scale dangers. This further indicates the very important need to understand how and why a fire was initiated.
Speed likely contributed to a loss-of-control of the Audi but it was the “Can-Opener” separation of its structure that was likely a major factor in the deaths of three of its occupants in a July 3, 2020 Edmonton Alberta crash.
The results of vast numbers of controlled crashes performed by various government agencies and research institutions shows that a vehicle travelling at 50 km/h will sustain about 40 centimetres of crush on its front end when it strikes an immovable barrier. This is a classic demonstration of the kinetic energy that exists while a vehicle is in motion and how that energy must be dissipated (“gotten rid of”) in order to come to rest.
In a vast number of real-life, single vehicle collisions, a vehicle is usually travelling too fast as it rounds a curve and the driver begins to take braking and steering actions when the vehicle begins to go out of control. During this long time and distance speed (and kinetic energy) is lost as the vehicle yaws (fish-tails or drifts) about its vertical axis. Next an impact occurs and more speed (and more kinetic energy) is lost. Finally the vehicle is redirected by the impact and slides or tumbles for an additional time and distance to its final rest position as all of its speed (and all of its kinetic energy) is lost at final rest.
In modern times investigators can simply download event data from an event data recorder (EDR or “black box”) in order to find out precise information about what happened during a crash. But that information is never made available to news agencies and the public. Instead what the public is told is that speed, alcohol or driver distraction were likely factors in the crash long before any objective data is analysed from the EDR . If other factors were involved the public will never know about them.
In the above photo we can estimate what speed might have been involved independent of any data from the EDR. The traditional method is to work backwards from the final rest position of the vehicle and consider how much kinetic energy could have been dissipated along each step of the vehicle’s motion leading back to where the incident began. The primary issue of interest in the present scenario is the conclusion that the vehicle’s speed caused the deaths of three of the vehicle’s four occupants (the driver apparently survived). Let us say that someone believed the vehicle was travelling at the excessive speed of 80 km/h when it struck the Starbucks building.
Working backwards from the vehicle’s final rest position we might estimate that the vehicle travelled about a car length from its point of impact with the Starbucks building to its final rest position. Even if all 4 wheels were locked during this motion of about 5 metres a speed only about 30 km/h would be lost. If all of the vehicle’s four wheels were not locked (more likely scenario) and a deceleration equal to only 2 wheels being locked is applied, the speed loss becomes only about 25 km/h. So where does the remaining (80-30) speed loss come from? It must come from the evidence of damage to the car and destruction of the building. That becomes more complicated because we do not know the characteristics of the buildings structure. But given that Sir Issac Newton has told us that forces in an impact must be equal and opposite, we can judge that the severity of the damage on the car must provide some clue as to the severity of the impact and the speed lost.
One clue is to review the numerous results of other impacts where a vehicle has crashed into a modern, retail or residential building. This is common in parking lots or city streets when a driver mistakes the accelerator pedal for the brake. We see numerous photos of such instances where there appears to be considerable breakage of glass and bricks but the car remains relatively “uncrushed” and the driver is only shook up. Some examples are shown below.
These numerous instances tell of the nature of the structure of these buildings and the fact that they are brittle and fall apart at relatively low forces.In a similar manner the photo below shows the extent of damage to the modern structure of the Starbucks building at the Edmonton multi-fatal crash site. One can see that the structure is not much different from those shown in the previous examples above.
The photo below shows that the structure of the Starbucks building was made up of glass and its frames along with a door and some brickwork at the bottom.
The photo below shows how the structure of the Audi appears to have been opened up and separated as if by a can opener and is not consistent with the type of damage that has occured from other building impacts. It is known that vehicles have weak spots that when struck can cause the structure to rupture/separate. This is rarely discussed as many persons who are responsible for driver safety would have much explaining to do.
The characteristics of this damage to the Audi have not been discussed but are not consistent with a high speed at the time of contact with the building. Such a high speed impact should have demonstrated itself in more damage to the building.
While it may be true that the Audi was speeding at the time that its driver lost control in the curve, much of its speed could have been lost on approach to the impact with the Starbucks building. Other critical facts such as the use of seat-belts would also need to be known to understand why the three occupants of this vehicle sustained their fatal injuries.
In an assessment of what matters, it is important to recognize the difference between what caused a collision and what caused the injuries to the occupants inside the striking vehicle. The causes are rarely the same. In any impact there are at least two impacts. The first is between the vehicle and its environment (another vehicle, a tree, a building etc.). The second impact is between the occupant and the vehicle interior (unless there is a complete, undisturbed ejection). One might also continue to note that a third impact might be between the body and individual organs ( such as an aorta tear during high deceleration). Approaches such as these can help investigators in recognizing what factors need to be considered in any collision reconstruction.
A seemingly spectacular video clip has been shown of a car going out of control on Williams Parkway in Brampton, Ontario, crashing through a roadside fence, rolling over multiple times and striking a parked car. The best that can be said is that no one was killed, although that itself could be classified as a modern miracle. Many crashes on any professional racing circuit are not much more dramatic. However such videos can attract the attention of many admirers who might think this could be fun: “If this driver could do it maybe I can too”. While this is complete foolishness it is also an opportunity to grasp the attention of these admirers and provide a step-by-step analysis of why this is not to be admired. Over and over again we have opportunities like these to explain the cause of serious injury and death but we do not. It is not a case of freightening speeders but providing them with objective, scientific information as, in many instances, reducing ignorance can be a road safety tool.
Starting on July 6th no demerit points will be added if you are caught by Toronto’s speed cameras, only a fine will apply. So If you are the owner of a Ferrari and you have some wealth, will you care if you have to pay a $600 fine? Likely not. But the owner of a beat-up, old, economy car will likely feel the pinch. This is the problem.
It is not like the politicians in Toronto are not aware of the discrepancy, but do they have a reasonable explanation why it exists? Are the news media independent enough to raise this question?
Since demerit points may be the only way to affect rich drivers, is there some way to apply demerit points to owners? Perhaps this could influence those owners to be more judicious about who drives their vehicle. If not, congratulations to all you rich people, you won the traffic lottery!
On June 2, 2020 Gorski Consulting conducted multiple-video camera documentations of northbound cyclists travelling along the City of London multi-use path approaching the underpass at Trafalgar Road. Video analysis has now been completed and the results have been summarized in an article entitled “Speed of Recreational Cyclists on Down-slope of Trafalgar Bike Path” which can be accessed via the link below:
The following are some preliminary observations from the tragic death of a family at the intersection of Countryside Drive and Torbram Road in Brampton yesterday afternoon. It was reported that an eastbound Infiniti, being driven by a 20-year-old male, on Countryside Drive, collided with a Volkswagen Atlas SUV that was travelling north on Torbram Road. A 37-year-old female driver of the Honda was killed as well as her three children. The driver of the Infiniti reportedly sustained critical injuries.
The focus of the news media attention has been on reports that, just before the collision, a Peel Regional Police officer was westbound on Countryside Drive and observed the Infiniti. As police chases are a lightning rod for public debate the focus has been on whether these collision events were related to a police chase. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has taken over the investigation with respect to the police involvement in the incident. The focus has also been on the driving record of the Infiniti driver and the probable likelihood that it was he who entered the intersection on a red signal. These matters are relevant but they are not the only issues.
As has been observed over numerous tragic incidents, the public’s attention is easily drawn away from important matters that never become revealed. In the present circumstance, while the police involvement may be an important and separate issue, similarly the Infiniti driver’s actions, absolutely no attention has been focused on the fact that all four occupants of the VW SUV perished and whether this outcome was acceptable and inevitable. Investigators who are experienced in the assessment of injury in motor vehicle collisions understand that it is rare to encounter a situation where multiple fatalities occur in a single vehicle and particularly more rare that all four occupants would die in one vehicle. Such circumstances can occur when a vehicle catches fire or enters a body of water where there is no opportunity to escape the vehicle interior, but not from the force of impact.
In most instances vehicle occupants die because they are exposed to very large collision forces that are applied over a very short time. Such forces do not exist equally in all parts of a vehicle such that different occupants sustain different collision forces, partly because of where they are seated with respect to the application of the impact force on the vehicle. Thus in a side impact, such as the one experienced by the VW SUV, the occupants on the opposite (right) side of the SUV would experience substantially less risk of death than those on the left where there is the crush and possible intrusion into the occupant space. Looking at the photos of the crush on the VW SUV it is obvious that the Infiniti made contact in the soft zone between the left-front and left-rear wheels. Photos do not provide a good opportunity to know the depth of the penetration into the side but it does appear to be substantial. Alternatively, because of the low front end of the Infiniti and the higher-than-average height of the SUV, much of the crush is at a low level and below the critical pelvic-chest regions of typical seated passengers. So that substantial crush is not as dangerous than if the VW SUV was struck by a vehicle with a higher front end, like a pick-up truck for example.
Next, we can consider the crush on the front end of the Infiniti. Again, there is significant crush but it is not massive. And this is expected given that the front end of the Infiniti would be stiffer than the side of the VW SUV. Thus the driver of the Infiniti benefited from striking the soft side structure of the VW SUV and, by all rights, should have suffered only minor to moderate injuries in a scenario of proper seat-belt use and air bag deployment. The fact that he reportedly sustained critical injuries is unusual except that there appear to be dark regions on the Infiniti’s hood and windshield possibly indicating the ignition of a fire. This fact has simply gone over the heads of the news media.
Before the existence of event data recorders collision reconstructionists had to use evidence such as post-impact travel distances, angles of departure, crush measurements and other details to sort out vehicle speeds and collision severity. While in theory police and others must continue to consider such evidence, the practical reality is that reconstructionists immediately rush to the “Black Box” to download the collision data. Thus the knowledge and artistry of understanding physical evidence becomes placed further and further into the background.
What can be said about the deaths in this tragic incident is that they are suspicious, particularly for the child deaths. As mentioned, the crush on the side of the VW SUV is substantial but its maximum is at a low level and the relevant crush at the occupant level is not as dire. When we add the fact that the children should have been in child seats or perhaps on a booster cushion, such arrangements should greatly improve a child’s ability to survive very extreme collision forces. The crush on the side of the VW SUV is not consistent with the fatal consequences experienced by all four occupants of the vehicle. Clearly some of these occupants should have survived.
While there was a concrete lamp standard that fell diagonally across the right front corner of the vehicle such a result appears to be deadly to the inexperienced eye. Yet, in reality, the roof zone of light vehicles is extremely soft and easily crushed. Thus the crush caused by the pole would only be relevant to an occupant seated in the right front seat, if indeed there was an occupant seated there even, due to the age of the children, there should not have been a child seated in that seat. While there are no good views showing the amount of crush caused to the VW SUV by the pole impact it would also not be expected to be a major factor in causing the deaths to the children.
In totality, this is truly a tragic incident, much as was expressed by the Mayor of the City of Brampton and the Premier of Ontario. But it is a greater tragedy when the public does not understand what caused it. Not from the standpoint of who entered the intersection on a red signal, but because there is no interest in understanding why the four occupants perished and that, even at very high impact speeds, modern vehicles are capable of preventing death, and should have prevented at least some of the deaths in this tragedy. But this is a hot flame that no one has the courage to touch.
The speed of cyclists on downgrades was previously reported in a Gorski Consulting article of October 8, 2018. That article examined three sites where substantial downgrades existed and it was demonstrated that cyclists generally coasted to high speeds. One of those sites, located south of Trafalgar Road, was particularly interesting because of its new construction and the challenging conditions that were created for cyclists and pedestrians.
On June 2, 2020 Gorski Consulting returned to Trafalgar site and conducted additional observations to explore the extent of the possible safety problems that might exist. Multiple video cameras were used to capture the speed of northbound cyclists on the trail as well as to explore any conflicts with pedestrians who also use the trail. The video will be analysed in the next week or two and an article is expected to be posted to the Gorski Consulting website with the results of the testing.
We have seen the scenario depicted above on numerous occasions. A slow-moving heavy truck and an impatient driver. The consequences of an error in this scenario could be higher when the truck is a tanker loaded with explosive cargo.
As shown below the pick-up driver has already entered into the no passing zone and the passing motion is not completed. What led to this result?
Miscalculation, misinterpretation, criminal negligence or a combination of all? Which is it? And how can it be prevented?
One of the solutions is to focus our attention on risky drivers rather than the population at large. Whether it be stunt driving at tremendous speed, high acceleration at inappropriate times and locations, or simply driving unpredictably, high risk drivers need to be identified and their actions monitored in a more focused manner than is currently taking place.
Averaging at least one motorcyclist fatality every two days is not a good record. But that is the strange Ontario reality during the Covid-19 Pandemic in this month of May. The following list represents some of those killed although it may be not complete.
- On May 1st the OPP reported that a pick-up truck collided with two motorcycles on Wellington Road 19 at the Sixth Line. One of the motorcyclists was killed.
- On May 3rd a 30-year-old female motorcyclist was killed at the intersection of Dingman Drive and Highbury Ave in south London. Apparently there was no other vehicle involved the collision.
- On May 4th, a 22-year-old male was killed when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle near Jalna Boulevard and Poplar Crescent in London.
- On May 12th, a motorcyclist died in a single vehicle collision on Tapscott Road and Melford Drive in Scarborough.
- On May 13th a motorcycle collided with an SUV at the intersection of Huron County Road 12nd Hydro Line Road near Seaforth. The motorcyclist died at the collision scene.
- On May 16th, a motorcycle collided with a car at the intersection of Creditview Road and Sandalwood Parkway in Brampton. The motorcyclist died at the scene.
- On May 16th a 60-year-old male motorcyclist was killed when he collided with an SUV on Sunset Drive near Wilson Ave in St Thomas.
- On May 17th a motorcyclist died when he was reportedly making a turn on Northey’s Bay Road in North Kawartha near Peterborough. No other vehicles were involved in the crash.
- On May 17th a motorcyclist was killed in a single vehicle collision on Perth Line 87 near Listowel.
Ontario statistics indicate that there were 67 motorcyclists killed in 2017 and 57 in 2018 but those numbers are based on “preliminary” data while the final numbers have still not been released.
According the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the U.S. 5229 motorcyclists were killed in 2017 and 4985 in 2018. This change represented a 4.7% drop in fatalities. Early estimates for 2019 indicate that there was a 1% drop in fatalities in comparison to 2018.
Tools Have Changed But Collision Reconstruction Still Dependent On Detail, Quality of Thought and Integrity
The caveman who worked harder at chiseling his stone into a smoother wheel was eventually rewarded with greater success. This idea has not changed in thousands of years, although the tools have.
Motor vehicle collision reconstruction may have been in existence for one hundred years but it took a long time to evolve. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that long-treasured wives’ tales began to be replaced with hard data and science. Science began rather simply with the use of momentum analysis, speed loss from skidding, free flight trajectory analysis, basic roadway design and signage and thoughts about how drivers process information. But as collisions caused more and more deaths and injuries governments decided to pay more attention and began creating agencies specifically focused to address the highway, the vehicle and the human behind the wheel. By 1966 the new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was formed in the U.S. and shortly afterward the similar Road Safety Branch of Transport Canada. Specialized Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation (MDAI) teams began popping up throughout North America funded by these federal agencies. Basic findings were uncovered. As an example, in 1974 a research paper by Kenneth Campbell enhanced the belief that vehicle crush and energy had a relationship that could be exploited and so an additional tool was added in speed and change-in-velocity analyses. Specialized computer reconstruction and simulation programs were developed through the 1970s, some of which exist to the present day. And by the 1980s, as computers and statistical programs began to take hold, the specialized MDAI investigations were being replaced by statistically-based sampling regimes. Surveying tools such as total stations were added and then replaced by laser scanners and drones. Event Data Recorders began to be installed by the late 1990’s. So tools have certainly changed.
Professional collision reconstruction may see another great shift as vehicles and the roads on which they ride become integrated, talking to each other and as artificial intelligence begins to monitor and document every detail of motion. As this process develops there are still many problems that need to be ironed out. In the meantime, as the tools have changed the process of creating a good reconstruction of a motor vehicle incident still relies on the basics that applied even before there were motor vehicles on the road: Detail, Quality of Thought and Integrity.
Detail means that there is no such thing as shortcuts. There are extremely few brilliant masterminds who know everything and therefore have the right to skip the details. Detail means that you gather the evidence and data with a fine-toothed comb, not missing things because they are unlikely to matter. While collisions are unique, their unravelling is not. The collision that occurred today likely occurred thousands of times before today. One needs to recognize that past collisions and their data can do much to help the reconstructionist on a current investigation. Thus one does not gather evidence just to solve a current case. One gathers evidence so that it can be used as a basis for understanding a future incident. When one gathers a sufficient quantity of detail it soon becomes apparent that the collision is a member of a group of previous collisions, assuming that all those previous collisions have also been documented with sufficient detail. When insufficient detail is gathered it not only prevents the solution of the current incident, it also becomes a lost data point that can no longer be matched to the numerous similar collisions of the past. And the investigation becomes useful to no one.
The next cornerstone of collision reconstruction is Quality of Thought. Reconstruction is not a process of finding answers, it is a process of knowing the questions to be asked. Any computer can spill out vast amounts of “answers” but it may be useless in providing the higher order of reasoning that is only available to the human species. Humans are uniquely capable of this higher order of thought. An example of this is the comparison between the quick response that vehicular computers can make to dangers that may be unseen by a human driver, yet they have difficulty distinguishing what is a legitimate threat in complex/unique environments. What is needed is the ability to recognize that an important question has not been brought forward, and has not been answered and the determination to find the answer to that question. Sometimes limits in Quality of Thought can be improved with formal training and experience however sometimes it cannot. And the subject rarely appreciates when that is the case. In a way we all suffer from a limited psychosis in that we do not know about the things that we do not know.
The final cornerstone of collision reconstruction is Integrity. This word is used to cover a wide spectrum of issues. Our ability to send probes to Mars, to make various medical breakthroughs and reduce many hazards of our complex world is owed to the fact that we are motivated to finding those solutions. Yet in the realm of motor vehicle collision reconstruction we are often not motivated to achieve those important successes. Our own intelligence works against us when the truth is perceived as a threat to us, or when a lie is to our benefit. Regrettably motor vehicle collisions are tied to the recovery fault. Even those investigations that claim to be purely fact-finding are also finding facts that the collision was caused by something or someone. Inevitably this cause falls into someone’s lap who may be held to account.
And here lies the difference between developing a probe of the Martian planet and reconstructing a motor vehicle collision. Those NASA scientists are rarely placed in a position of finding fault, they just want to build something that will reach the planet successfully. Although their mission is very complex and difficult, they overcome their difficulties because they are motivated to find the correct solution. The Integrity of their effect rarely needs to be questioned.
Yet in the realm of motor vehicle collision reconstruction the motivation is far different. Immediately after a collision occurs police are sent in to close down the site. While it is said that this is needed to protect the evidence, the reality is that these closures can be used to hide the evidence from wide public knowledge. This is evidenced by the fact that journalists who provide an essential service of informing the public on important issues, are often prevented from coming close enough to a collision site to document even rudimentary facts. In past years when insurers were more inclined to use independent engineers and reconstructionsts there was a degree of checks and balances because additional investigations were carried out. This gave some assurance that evidence could not be tampered with. But when police are the only ones who document the evidence the potential of misdeeds is increased. While police unions, police administration, police boards and SIUs should have good reasons to work together to remove bad cops this theory falls short in practice. Integrity does not just magically appear when a person puts on a police uniform, it must be developed and maintained through correct police policy which includes an unbiased assessment of an individual officer’s performance.
Once the police reconstruction is complete other individuals and agencies become involved. In more complex incidents some of these may be government transportation experts and manufacturer representatives. Sometimes they may be insurance representatives and experts, or experts working for a plaintiff and their personal lawyer. In all these instances Integrity is in jeopardy when the purpose of these inquiries is to gain an advantage for that entity’s protection, monetary gain, or other hidden agendas.
Inevitably the results of some reconstructions end up before the criminal and civil courts. Prosecutors and their experts in criminal trials are no less motivated to twist the facts than are the defendants, their lawyers and their experts. One cannot paint all lawyers with the same brush but it is not without reason that in the back alleys in downtown London, Ontario there is a very large and beautiful mural painting of the words “The Honest Lawyer” with painted flames coming up and over those words like a barbeque from hell. While there are many legitimate plaintiffs whose cases need the reasonable judgment of an honest trial, almost everyone is aware of lawyers and their clients whose wealth has come from winning the equivalent of a courtroom lottery. Integrity stops when money flows.
Even in the highest courts Integrity is jeopardized when politicians appoint judges solely because they are friends or who can be relied upon to make judgments based on some political or ideological agenda. It is sometimes said that we need more dumb judges because we have too many smart ones. By that what is meant is that the courts do not need egotists who already know what happened in a case before they have heard the evidence. As an example, in a very old criminal trial involving a fatal collision, the judge ignored the expert testimony about the travel direction of the two vehicles claiming “It is obvious which direction they were travelling just by looking at their pointing angles and final rest positions”. Even when lawyers from both sides of the case recognized his error and wanted to annul the matter the judge would not hear of it. It finally took a court of appeal to stop the injustice. The truly admirable judges are willing to admit they have not grasped all the issues and are willing to ask questions until they have a clear understanding. That may not move then up to become members of higher courts but Integrity matters more to them than the prestige of higher office.
Detail, Quality of Thought and Integrity have always been key cornerstones to collision reconstruction. When one stone is missing or flawed one can see how even the most impressive efforts can be for nothing. But when all are present and well placed they enable the stability of great accomplishments well beyond collision reconstruction itself.