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.