We must stop hiding fire deaths in collisions because this prevents action from being taken that might prevent future deaths. Another example of this problem relates to a head-on collision on Highway 406 at Glendale Ave near Thorold, Ontario.The OPP reported that a vehicle was travelling the wrong way on Highway 406 which is an access-controlled, freeway. The vehicle collided, head-on with an SUV. In their brief Twitter message the OPP provided the photo below showing the damage caused to the wrong way vehicle.
While the above photo shows that the wrong-way vehicle sustained substantial crush that should not be the focus of the OPP’s reports to media. Two persons died in the SUV yet, the media spokesperson for the OPP, Sergeant Kerry Schmidt, was quoted as saying “The vehicle that was going the proper way ended up starting on fire. The two occupants in that vehicle were pronounced dead at the scene”. There was no connection made by Sergeant Schmidt, that would properly inform the public whether the reason why the two occupants of the other vehicle died was because their vehicle caught fire. That is an important point. Because if they would have survived, except for the fire, then the commencement of the fire should be the primary matter of concern.
Two other photos are shown below which provide views of the burned vehicle but they are of minimal assistance as they do not show the occupant compartment where the persons died. If the occupant compartment was shown then one could assess whether there was sufficient crush that extended into where the occupants were seated. In that case we might suspect that the fire was not the cause of the deaths. But the two photos below do not provide such information.
It is well-known that larger mass and taller structure result in better odds of survival in a severe head-on collision. In the present example the wrong-way car was likely lighter and lower than the SUV and therefore the odds of the driver’s death were greater than the occupants of the SUV. Yet the reverse occurred. Thus this leads to the suspicion that the deaths did not occur from the impact force but likely from the subsequent fire. Yet the OPP has been silent on this issue.
There have been great advances in occupant protection in recent decades. This has likely been the greatest contributor to the large reductions in fatalities in motor vehicle crashes since the mid 1970s. Yet all these advancements become nullified when the occupants survive the crash but are then consumed by a vehicle fire that they cannot escape. This is why North American safety standards provide for testing of the flammability of vehicles after they have been involved in a controlled test. Yet there is a very limited amount of that testing and it cannot replicate the complicated collision scenarios that exist in the real world. Thus it is left to police investigations to capture those incidents of inappropriate fires through reports that they should be completing. Yet the official, standard, police report in Ontario does not provide a code which can be used to notate that a fire had occurred as part of a collision event. Thus there is no way for anyone to track this important and lethal potentially result.
This problem is becoming more important as vehicle fleets are changing with more computers, modules and general electrical power requirements. Everything from heated seats to windshield defrosters require electrical energy and this has resulted in changes in vehicle electrical systems. When a crash occurs it is essential to know whether those systems are increasing the potential of the eruption of a fire.
In a June, 2019 article by Lindsay Brooke, (“Protecting High-Voltage Circuits”) of the Automotive Engineering magazine, several enlightening comments were made regarding the increased electrical power of modern vehicles and the resultant increase in potential fires. In the opening paragraph the author provided this general observation:
“As OEMs develop their next-generation electrical architectures aimed at new hybrid, EV and autonomous vehicles, engineers are focused on delivering systems that are even more robust and “fail-safe” than those used today. Handling more power safely is a given, experts say, as more power-gobbling heated seats, electric turbos, active suspensions, lidars, onboard data processors and other safety sensors are added.”
Further in the article there was discussion of arcing:
“Arc intensity is directly related to voltage, current, and the rate of separation of the contact terminals. Arc event likelihood increases as voltage and current increase in circuit.”
“Arcing creates damage – and potentially fire” explained Eric Varton, chief engineer of advance development for Yazaki North America Core Engineering.
“He then showed video clips of two arcing events demonstrated in the Yazaki laboratory. The first demo, conducted with a 48-V, 11-amp; circuit – the load of a typical heated seat – shows a flash of near-MIG-weld intensity. The second demo was of a 500-V, 2-amp circuit – the arc erupted into fire in about four seconds”.
Unfortunately our collision reporting systems are not keeping up with these changes and advancements in automotive engineering and we may not be recognizing the extent of the fire problem. This era is accompanied by a reduction in independent reporting of collisions by the mass media and there are fewer and fewer investigative journalists and independent media outlets that have historically been the canaries in the public’s coal mines. Police are the only agency that now provides information about how and why a collision occurred. The police culture is one where the focus is on driver error at the expense of reporting other potential threats to public safety. This monopoly is simply unhealthy when new threats to public safety emerge and information about those threats is slow to reach the general public.