- July 21, 2017
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It was 1970 when serious accident investigation began at Volvo. They wanted to determine which were safer—lap belts or “three-point” seat belts. Engineers at Volvo formed a team and studied the results of crashes where the “three-point” seat belts were in use. It’s one reason we have the seat belt design we do today.
In 2017, we have teams that involve both the automakers and the National Center for Statistics and Analysis’s (NCSA) Special Crash Investigations (SCI) Program. The SCI Program has provided detailed data to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) since 1972. Every year, more than 100 crashes are chosen for study. The investigators focus on certain data points concerning the road, the vehicles, the occupants and their injuries, and the safety systems installed in the vehicles. Basically, SCI is similar to CSI; Dr. Carl Schulman, a surgeon and injury prevention specialist at the University of Miami’s William Lehman Injury Research Center, has noted that “instead of a crime scene, it’s a crash scene.”
How Does the SCI Program Operate?
Cases are selected by the NCSA based on what the agency believes it needs to study. These days they often want to check the performance of emerging technologies. Among the technologies studied have been child restraint systems, vehicles that use alternative fuels, and adaptive controls. The agency has also spent time and resources on automatic restraints like safety belts and air bags, and on school bus crashes.
Once investigators are sent to a crash scene, data is collected in three major forms:
- The scene itself is inspected for signs such as skid marks that help pinpoint where the impact occurred and the final positions of the vehicles.
- Many facets of the vehicles are checked: the safety systems, the amount of damage that occurred, the dynamics of the crash, and indications of the impact forces that the occupants might have undergone.
- Information is also collected from the crash victim(s) in order to obtain personal insights about the crash.
Finally, investigators look over medical records and police reports for crash information. However, it’s important to note that all data that is gathered remains confidential. No personally-identifiable information is ever included in any public file created by the SCI Program.
Improving Our Automotive Safety
Over the years, data from the SCI Program has resulted in vehicular safety improvements. Crashes have become less deadly because researchers have learned from them and redesigned our vehicles. The director of the Volvo Car Safety Center, Malin Ekholm, commented, “There are quite a few examples of new technology derived from what is going on out there. Even though there aren’t as many accidents happening anymore, the learning from accidents is still crucial.”
Some of the specific cases, besides the seat belt research mentioned, that have helped improve vehicular safety include the following:
- A redesign of headrests by Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) so they would provide extra support and reduce the incidence of whiplash injuries.
- An additional “crumple zone” that was added under seats by Volvo in order to better absorb the impact when a car went off the road and crashed.
- How to detect when the driver undergoes a medical event, such as a heart attack, in order to discover ways to protect the driver and others. This situation is currently under study. A “significant percentage” of crashes, according to Dr. Schulman at the Lehman Injury Research Center, occur because of sudden medical events.
The SCI Program intends to continue its mission of collecting data so that our vehicles can become ever safer.
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