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Crash Investigation: A History

Special Reports

by Rob Newton of Rob Newton Associates

The start:

In 1886 two major events happened; it was the year the house in which I live was built and the year the first motor car from Mr Benz hit the roads. For 10 years things were relatively quiet and then it all started.

On the 17th August 1896, Mrs. Bridget Driscoll of Old Town, Croydon was the first person to die in a motor car accident, and the first pedestrian victim of an automobile accident in the United Kingdom. As she crossed the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London while attending a folk dancing festival, she was struck by an automobile belonging to the Anglo-French Motor Carriage (Roger-Benz) Company that was being used to give demonstration rides.

The inquest under Coroner William Percy Morrison heard that the incident took place on a terrace in the grounds of Crystal Palace in London and, while the driver was reported to be doing 4mph, witnesses stated that the vehicle was travelling at “a reckless pace”, and "tremendous speed" when she was struck and she died minutes later of head injuries. At the time of the crash, the car was being driven by Arthur Edsell, an employee of the company. He had been driving for only 3 weeks. He had apparently tampered with the belt, causing the car to go at twice the intended speed and was also said to have been talking to the young lady passenger beside him.

After a six-hour inquest, the jury returned a verdict of "Accidental Death". No prosecution was proposed or brought against the driver or the company. The Coroner at the enquiry is reported to have remarked: “I trust that this sort of nonsense will never happen again”.

Less than three years later came the first death of a driver and passenger of a motor car. On the 25th February 1899, Edwin Sewell and Major Richer were thrown from their vehicle on Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, London, and killed. Sewell's death was the first fatality of a driver recorded. The driver, Mr. E.R. Sewell had been demonstrating the vehicle, a Daimler Wagonette, to 63-year-old Major James Stanley Richer, Department Head at the Army & Navy Stores, with the view to a possible purchase for the company. As they drove down the hill at 14mph, a wheel shed its rim. Both Sewell and Richer were thrown from the car onto the road. Sewell died instantly, and when Major Richer died four days after the accident without regaining consciousness, it became a dubious double-first; the first death of a driver in Britain, followed by the first death of a passenger in a motor car.

On the corner of Grove Hill there is a plaque commemorating the first car driver ever to die in a road accident

The research years

Since then over 30million people worldwide have lost their lives in road traffic collisions as they are now called. Statistics show however that in the UK the number of people killed and seriously injured has decreased steadily since the introduction of front seatbelt legislation. For more than 25 years Loughborough University’s Vehicle Safety Research Centre (VSRC) had been helping the Government and motor industry ensure the cars of today and tomorrow offer the best possible protection to occupants. Established in 1982 within the University’s Ergonomics and Safety Research Institute (ESRI), the VSRC was the largest dedicated real world crash investigation research group in the world. The Centre examined the causes of accidents and injuries, investigating real life crashes, and over the years has made major contributions to European road and vehicle safety, as well as important advances in the science of crash analysis. I was privileged to be part of the team involved in this vital work.

One of the VSRC’s longest running projects was the Co-operative Crash Injury Study (CCIS). The study was launched by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 1983 amidst growing concern for the safety of car drivers and passengers. The VSRC and the Birmingham Automotive Safety Centre, based at the University of Birmingham, were selected to work on the project alongside the DfT’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) and Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).

The Co-operative Crash Injury Study, CCIS was one of the world's largest and most well respected studies of car occupant injury causation. Each year the project teams investigated more than 1,200 crashes involving cars. Accidents underwent detailed investigations, and examinations of the damaged cars were carried out to determine the performance of the vehicle during the crash. The examinations we carried out included the role of seat belts, airbags and other safety devices. Injuries sustained by the occupants were then matched to the vehicle and documented in an anonymous electronic database.

The CCIS sample criteria ensured that the data collected was relevant and comparable. We only investigated crashes which had resulted in the death or serious injury of a vehicle occupant, which involved a car that was seven years old or less and where the vehicle has had to be towed away from the scene of the incident. Where several cars had been involved in an accident we examined all the vehicles concerned as they all had an important part to play in helping us to understand how a collision occurred and how injuries were sustained. A proportion of slight injury collisions that involved cars that were five years old or less were also investigated to learn from cars that had performed well in accidents.

When examining vehicles we used a very strict methodology that had been developed over many years to ensure we collected the exact same data from each investigation we carried out. During each examination we gathered very detailed information about the exterior and interior of the vehicle to help us determine how someone was injured, and then correlate our findings with information gathered by the police at the scene of the crash and medical data collected from hospitals. When we had all the information we put together a precise picture of what happened in the accident, how injuries were sustained and how the car performed. This methodology continues to be used at Rob Newton Associates.

There were many different organisations that made use of the CCIS data. The Government, for example, wanted to know what rules or regulations relating to car safety were likely to be of benefit and should be introduced, and what had been the effect of the regulations it had already introduced. Initially the main remit of the CCIS was to establish whether the DfT’s decision early in the 1980s to make the wearing of seatbelts in the front seats of vehicles mandatory was the correct one. All indications were that this would help save lives but there was no scientific research to back this up.

You can use computer simulations and laboratory tests to help assess the effectiveness of car safety devices, but you can only truly know if they are saving lives by looking at how they perform in actual accidents. A mechanical dummy in an artificial environment doesn’t react like a human would in a car crash and real accidents are much more diverse than can be replicated in laboratories. However, by combining all these methods of investigation, you can make real advances in car safety. Very early on the CCIS was able to illustrate just how effective seatbelts were in saving lives and preventing serious injury.

As well as the Government, the motor industry also used the data collected through the CCIS to get guidance on what new car safety devices are needed, how current devices were performing and how they could be improved. The feedback to industry was an incredibly important part of the CCIS. The investigations we carried out enabled industry to make informed decisions and provided specific data on where and what type of protection new safety devices needed to offer. For example, in side impacts, should car manufacturers focus their efforts on trying to protect the lower part of the body or the chest and head? We were able to tell them, from our findings, where the most serious injuries occur and what area of the body needed the most protection. Feedback on where current safety devices were failing or having little impact was also vital for industry to ensure they moved forward in the right direction. Analysis of the CCIS data provided a unique view on how car structures, restraints and advanced safety systems influence car occupant injury. This real world injury and vehicle information was the foundation for many of the car safety improvements that have occurred since the study began. CCIS data directly influenced vehicle design improvements, legislation, consumer crash test programmes and test tool injury criteria. Thus the project made many positive contributions to the development of safer vehicles.

It was very rewarding to know that the work we carried out each day was ultimately saving lives. When we examined vehicles we knew that a life had been lost or someone had been seriously injured, but the CCIS enabled something positive to come from those many tragedies and helped prevent future ones from occurring.

From Research to Safety Consultancy

For many years at the VSRC, Rob Newton and his team were able to assist other clients utilising the skills and experience learnt from the research and when the government contract ceased in 2010 Rob set up a private company offering those skills to Solicitors, Insurance companies and the Police. Rob Newton Associates now offers expert forensic biomechanics and occupant kinematics expertise for litigation, insurance and prosecution. Collision reconstruction is the scientific process of investigating, analysing, and drawing conclusions about the causes and events during a vehicle collision. Rob Newton Associates are employed to conduct in-depth collision analysis and reconstruction to identify the collision causation and contributing factors in different types of collisions, including the role of the driver, vehicle, roadway and the environment. The laws of physics and engineering principles such as the conservation of linear momentum and kinematics are the basis for these analyses and collisions can be mathematically modelled or animated in 3D using various software.

Systematic examination of a vehicle interior can reveal much about what occurred during the final few milliseconds of a crash. With in-depth knowledge of what happens in most common instances the investigator is able to focus their attention on the most probable events and is able to predict injury outcomes. Thorough assessment of vehicle to occupant interaction enables assessment of seatbelt use, probable seat position for occupants and much more.

Seatbelts are now an integral part of the vehicle’s safety system and systematic research has demonstrated what happens when car occupants have collisions with and without wearing them. In the majority of cases it can be determined whether an occupant was wearing their seat belt correctly or not. It can also be accurately predicted, for a given collision scenario, the expected injury pattern for belted and unbelted passengers.

All Vehicles are now fitted with an array of sophisticated equipment (not just on top-of-therange models). This can range from Predictive Assist Braking to Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control. Very soon the investigator’s question will not be “Who was driving?” but “Was there a driver?” ?

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