Remorse over a tragedy does not mean that we fail to inquire how and why the tragedy occurred. For the most obvious reason that we need to ensure that we have done all we can to prevent a similar happening in the future.
Thus it is necessary to determine why six persons perished in a head-on crash on Highway 93 near Jasper, Alberta on Tuesday, August 7, 2018. It was reported that a northbound van was carrying five family members including Nick Copeland and Angela Elkins who both perished. A head-on collision occurred with an unidentified southbound vehicle in which four of the occupants also perished. A comment mentioned in a CBC news article indicated “Both vehicles caught fire”.
Head-on collisions can be tremendously severe. In the most severe cases, which are extremely rare, two vehicles could potentially strike each other at speeds approaching 100 km/h. If the impact is “central”, or the opposing forces are directed at each vehicle’s centre-of-gravity, it is possible that all the pre-crash speed of each vehicle could be lost from the impact itself with no additional post-impact travel. This is the most severe possibility but it rarely occurs. In reality there is almost never such a central impact and some post-impact travel occurs meaning that not all of the vehicles’ speeds are lost in the impact itself. In fact, a majority of head-on collisions involve substantial post-impact motions meaning that a collision is rarely as severe as it potentially could be.
In terms of occupant protection vehicle manufacturers had made tremendous strides in making vehicles safer for occupants in a head-on collisions. The design of the vehicle’s structure is such that it dissipates the most kinetic energy, but importantly, in a controlled manner, while taking into account the percentages of collision severity a vehicle is likely to be involved in. Vehicle interiors have progressed through numerous improvements that also attempt to provide a controlled ride-down of the occupant’s body in the very limited time of just over a 1/10 of a second in which many severe head-on collisions occur. Not only does this controlled ride down involve air bags and seat belts but there is an understanding that knee bolsters, collapsing of steering columns and design of seats can all work together as a system to provide that controlled ride-down. We only need to look at the simple fact that in the mid-1970s there were approximately 7400 fatalities in motor vehicle collisions in Canada while in recent years that has now dropped to slightly under 2000.
Despite all this good news, advanced technology can still be defeated when something intrudes during the crash into the occupant compartment. It has been a long-standing fact that structural intrusion has been correlated with increased injury thus much effort has been placed on making sure that structural parts of the vehicle do not intrude the occupant space. Unfortunately there are two other types of intrusions that are not commonly understood as intrusions. Those being from water and from fire.
Water intrusion is what happens when occupants of a vehicle escape the severity of a crash but then the vehicle plunges into a body of water. It is not uncommon for vehicles to roll and come to rest upside down thus making even a very shallow depth of water life-threatening.
The other intrusion, fire, can also be as lethal. While attempting to protect vehicle occupants via crushing and dislocation of the vehicle body manufacturers have created the situation where this crushing and dislocation causes the doors of a vehicle to become jammed and/or certain portions of the vehicle entrap certain portions of an occupant’s body such as the lower legs. This entrapment can be acceptable in most cases when the alternative is the transfer of kinetic energy to the occupant’s body from the impact which leads to increased levels of injury. However when a fire erupts the situation is obviously problematic. Without an easy way to escape a vehicle the occupants who might have survived a severe crash may now become burned alive. This is not a pleasant topic of discussion and this is why it is not discussed.
In many ways when we avoid a topic that is unpleasant to us we can create the environment which prolongs its existence. In many instances when a fire is the cause of a crash victim’s death or injury it is not mentioned. No one questions the investigators whether the fire was preventable or whether there was some mechanism or factor that could have been changed to prevent the occurrence. Also no one questions what actions have been put forth to document the results and keep track of them much like we would do when we suspect a typical vehicle defect.
It would not make sense for example, to note that a wheel fell off a vehicle prior to a crash and do nothing even though one has observed that three previous crashes with the same vehicle also involved pre-crash wheel separations. In those instances the data is documented and further investigations are carried out to correct the problem. This process should not change simply because the defect could be a pre-mature fire and it has resulted in ugly consequences that we do not what to discuss. All motor vehicles deaths are ugly incidents. We have an obligation to investigate them properly and to take action to reduce them and their consequences.
In the present case the crash on Highway 93 near Jasper has all the indications that the four occupants of the unidentified vehicle that collided with the van may have sustained their fatal injuries due to the fire, or at least the fire contributed to the deaths. The possibility should be confirmed or denied. This issue is being ignored by the news media and it should not be ignored. When we bring that fact to light a momentum and awareness is developed that leads to change. Failing to create that momentum and awareness we become the instruments that prevent change from occurring.