We congratulate Sergeant Kerry Schmidt for posting several photos of a collision on Highway 401 near Highway 6 as these enable a further discussion and valuable lessons to the public. As typical, not all the details of the incident can be obtained from just a few photos, but they can be used in a general discussion of similar events.
Firstly, the photo above shows the disabled vehicle which has sustained what appears to be an extreme amount of crush to its rear end. A single photo like this is often not fully descriptive of collision severity because it may only show the area of maximum crush whereas we also need to consider other portions of the vehicle such as the extent of crush at the right rear corner. An occupant seated in the driver’s seat of this vehicle would definitely be in grave circumstances, as properly reported by Sergeant Schmidt. But given the description “disabled” we would want to know whether the reportedly injured occupant was actually seated in the driver’s seat, or was actually somewhere else when the impact occurred.
Regrettably, there have been some previous comments posted by OPP investigators that persons involved in a collision on Hwy 401 should remain in their vehicles as this is the safest location. These comments were made when officers were investigating a situation where the occupant of a disabled vehicle exited and tried to run to the roadside and was killed in the process. Thus these instructions were based on this narrow focus and lack of understanding that there is no universally safe location or action. The OPP instructions to the general public should not be made with a narrow focus on the results of an individual collision. Unfortunately the person in peril needs to make a decision based on the individual circumstances that they are placed in. As shown in the above photo you could easily die when sitting is a disabled vehicle, in darkness, on Hwy 401. And you could easily die from exiting your vehicle and attempting to run to safety of the roadside. The correct advise is that you have to be cognizant of your environment and make your decision based on the specifics of what you detect and understand.
The most dangerous seconds are those just as your disabled vehicle is coming to a stop and Sergeant Schmidt was correct in stating “TRY to get off the lane”, if you can. In other words, as you are experiencing your vehicle difficulties attempt to bring your vehicle off the travel lanes. While this cannot always be done successfully, the alternative of being stopped in the middle of the travel lanes can be more dangerous. You cannot be meek or hesitant about exiting the travel surface. In most instances you need to “hammer your gas” pedal to exit as quickly as possible. And in some instances purposely driving into a barrier, vegetation or uneven ground.
If you must remain in your vehicle and it is stalled in a live lane it is essential that you wear your seat-belt. Your vehicle provides an important safety cage that contains advanced technology designed to improve your safety. In the vast majority of impact scenarios your chances are favourable when you are in your vehicle versus outside, given that the impact will occur. Also do not sit in any of the rear seats when the potential of a serious rear-end impact is probable.
If you have the ability to activate any emergency lighting such as Hazard Lights it would be obvious they should be activated. But some persons may actually have traffic cones or other warning devices such as traffic vests that could be worn or placed on the roadway thus warning drivers of your vehicle’s presence. Obviously, stepping out of your stopped vehicle and blindly rummaging through the open trunk and then walking up stream of your vehicle to place some cones needs to be taken with extreme caution taking the unique circumstances into consideration.
The belief that your Hazard Lights will clearly indicate to others approaching your vehicle that you are stopped is a very wrong and dangerous conclusion. There are many vehicles on any roadway that have their Hazard Lights activated but are not stopped. They may be travelling slowly or the driver may have activated them to draw attention to a specific condition of their vehicle. Fatal collisions have been documented where the principal cause was the mistaken belief that Hazard Lights would clearly demonstrate the stopped condition of a vehicle. Thus, it would be advisable to always have 3 or 4 traffic cones in the the trunk of your vehicle. Prior instructions must also be obtained as to where, and what distance these cones need to be placed with respect to your stopped. By far traffic cones are most helpful devices that indicate your stopped condition and they are relatively cheap to buy. Unless you intend to retain a blocking truck with a large TC-12 arrow sign wherever you go, cones must be a must.
Hwy 401 near Highway 6 is often populated by up to 50% heavy trucks so your chances of being struck by one of those large units is much higher than elsewhere. So, on that isolated basis, it would be advised to try to get out of your vehicle and, if you cannot cross to safety, at least move to a position a good 20 metres downstream of your disabled vehicle. If an approaching vehicle is unable to stop and it strikes your vehicle, there is a better chance that by the time it reaches your location the speeds of the combined vehicles may be less than if you stood near, or downstream of where your vehicle is stopped. Also, remaining vigilant, you may be able to assess the impact and consider an escape route that minimizes consequences to you. By the way, moving much further downstream, say 50 metres, from your disabled vehicle brings more danger because now you provide passing vehicles, that may be involved in emergency motions, to veer into the lane where you are standing thus negating the benefit of using your vehicle as a safety barrier.
Never underestimate the additional protection that a concrete median barrier can provide. If your vehicle is stalled in either the middle or left (fast) lane of a 3-lane expressway such as Highway 401, and there is no way that you can move your vehicle, you may be advised to run to this barrier and cross over it. Do not stand on the side of the barrier where your vehicle is stalled. Your life may depend on you crossing over the barrier so do absolutely whatever is necessary, including help from another person, or using any device that will help you get over the rather tall barrier. Elderly or other infirm persons may have difficulty with this but when it is a matter of life and death you may not have a choice and must do whatever is necessary to increase your chances of survival.
While the above photo shows that the struck vehicle did not catch fire, that is not always the case. Unfortunately the occurrence of post impact fires seems to be gaining in frequency. If you happen to be an occupant of a disabled vehicle that sustains major damage it is common that your door, and/or other doors may become jammed and you may not be able to open them. If fire erupts the consequences could be quite horrific. Noting these consequences should not lead to an unreasonable alarm such that the escaping a vehicle is advised in all instances. For example if your vehicle has become disabled and a substantial amount of traffic has now slowed, the percentages are likely in your favour if you remain in your vehicle, particularly if one of the stopping vehicles is a heavy truck which will act as a barrier from any further collisions behind your vehicle.
It needs to be reiterated that nothing here is foolproof or guaranteed, so these advisements are noted to increase your chances of a more favourable injury outcome, they will not guarantee a successful result.
The photo of the striking transport truck lying on its right side, provided by Sergeant Schmidt, is shown below and this provides another lesson.
We sometimes hear the phrase “mass wins” when discussing who is likely to survive in a collision. In other words, when you are the occupant of a much heavier (more massive) vehicle, you will sustain less injury than if you are the occupant of a lighter (less massive) vehicle. The details of that discussion will be left to another time. But drivers of massive transport trucks can enter into an unrealistic belief that they do not need to worry about being injured when their truck collides with a much smaller car. That can be a fatal error in judgment.
Yes, the driver of the transport truck in this collision reportedly sustained only minor injuries but the result could have been much different. During the actual impact between the car and truck the driver of the truck would clearly be at an advantage. In that narrow sense, mass does win. And it can be seen above that the truck likely lost relatively little speed from that actual impact as the truck continued to travel along its original path for a considerable distance. But it is not that initial impact that is of concern, but what happens as the truck travels, out-of-control, from impact to rest. The impact may cause damage to the truck’s steering system or other wheels and suspension making it difficult for the driver to gain control. The critical factor is that this truck, which may also be loaded with cargo, possesses much more kinetic energy than the car, due to its mass. That kinetic energy needs to be dissipated (“gotten rid of”) by producing mechanical “Work”. This transfer of energy occurs when the truck moves from impact to rest via the resistance to that travel by way of possible braking at the wheels or some form of jamming or damage to those wheels that produces further resistance to motion. The transfer of energy may also occur from falling over and sliding, as demonstrated in the photo above. The transfer of energy may occur from impacting something and causing crush to the truck, the struck object or both. There might even be a small amount of energy transferred by creating noise or vibrations. Regardless, the point is that when all this kinetic energy is available it can be dangerous to the truck driver. Crush can occur to the truck cab where the driver is seated. It may also occur from dislodged cargo that may move toward the cab. There could be a penetration into the cab from exterior objects. All these dangerous things will happen because of this very large amount of kinetic energy than needs to be dissipated before the driver can be safe.
But what about dangerous cargo? What if the truck is carrying something explosive or corrosive?
It is not appreciated that any barrier systems existing on modern highways are designed to protect occupants of smaller vehicles. They are not designed to stop or redirect large trucks. Many barriers are not tall enough and heavy vehicles often fall over them, sometimes causing a more dangerous situation than if no barrier existed. A full-size, and fully-loaded tractor trailer will often penetrate through a barrier and could travel into opposing lanes where it could collide with other vehicles, including other trucks. These are additional dangers faced by truck drivers that are experienced after a seemingly minor impact with a smaller vehicle.
In summary, think of collision analysis as a label that you read on a prescribed bottle of drug. Reading the label tells you how the drug may be helpful and where its side effects may be dangerous. In the same way, we need to read the “collision label” through collision analysis. We need to read about what happens in real-life collisions in order to protect us from those unfortunate circumstances when a collision could threaten our life or those around us. When we fail to read the label, or when police and news media fail to paste a label for us to read, our lack of understanding can lead to potentially needless tragedy.