Crash Analysis: A Personal Story
I started the analysis almost right away out of habit. Actually, “right away” means later that day. First, we had to escape the burning truck. That was easier said than done because we were all unconscious from the impact.
Let’s start from the beginning. Just a few months ago, on September 2, the Friday before Labor Day, my wife and I were moving her sister to Georgia to live with her daughter. We were cruising at the Interstate 10 speed limit near Slidell, Louisiana. I was towing a 4,000-pound U-Haul trailer behind my Ford F-150 SuperCrew. Gwen, my wife of 33 years, was in the passenger seat. My sister-in-law, Sonja, was sitting in the rear behind Gwen. Ahead, a red Toyota RAV4 was pulled over on the right shoulder, its right-side tires in the grass. The vehicle’s right turn signal was flashing.
About a football-field length away from us, the driver of the RAV4 turned off his right turn signal. At 50 yards away, the driver made a hard left turn and entered the highway, attempting to make a U-turn through the median to reach the other side of the interstate. We hit his vehicle at 70 miles per hour.
All of us in the truck lost consciousness upon impact. One thing I remember is the truck sliding backward. The cabin of the truck was smoky from the airbag deployment. It seemed that as soon as we came to a stop, a rescuer was at my door and Gwen’s door at the same time. “Your truck is on fire – you have to get out,” the rescuer said. The hood of the truck was up, obstructing my view, but I could still see the orange flames and black smoke rising from the engine compartment.
I told the rescuer to get the woman out first; I believed I could get out of the truck on my own if I had to. I then passed out again. The next thing I remember, two firefighters were at my door. The fire was out – I remember smelling the fire extinguisher media. Still, I could have sworn I never lost consciousness, although I likely did several times before I got out of the truck.
I found out three days later that it was several minutes before anyone got to us. Traffic had been very light at the time. The first vehicle to stop was a tractor-trailer; the driver stopped at the RAV4. Our rescuers were workers from the weigh station 2 miles away who heard the call and came to help. Louisiana State Police arrived four minutes after the first call. St. Tammany Parish fire rescue arrived six minutes after the call. Luckily for us, those response times were far better than the national average.
The driver of the RAV4 didn’t use his left turn signal to indicate he was going to enter the interstate. No one knows why. The turn was illegal, so I guess you don’t advertise that you are about to do something most everyone knows is illegal, especially when there is a sign clearly showing that the median crossing is for authorized vehicles only. It turned out that the RAV4 driver had missed his exit and decided to use the median crossing for his U-turn. The question I have been asked most often since the crash is, why didn’t I move over? It’s a good question. I do move over for vehicles on the side of the road, especially when they are close to the travel lane and there is visible activity. On this particular day, I moved over about the width of half a lane. The situation looked innocuous until it was too late. I learned that when you have choices to make, you cannot assume anything about the other driver.
In analyzing the incident, moving over may not have been a good option. We impacted into the inside lane, partly by choice (I’ll explain more later). If we had moved completely to the inside lane, I might have been tempted to enter the median to avoid a collision. The grass in the median was tall. From the tailgate of the fire truck, I could see the path we had taken. If I had entered the median 50 feet earlier, I would have hit the raised compacted driveway that crossed the median. We probably would have launched over the median guardrail only to have the trailer land on us.
What I did do was steer toward the front end of the RAV4.
Training Pays Off
Fifty years ago, I was at a police academy where we spent 10 days on a skid pad, performing high-speed emergency maneuvers in a Ford Crown Victoria powered by a 428 Police Interceptor engine. We also chased a driving instructor who did his best to get us to spin off the training track. Additionally, we learned about tactical crash situations and where you do and don’t want to hit another vehicle. All these years later, the training paid off. Hitting the RAV4 at the front wheel lessened the impact of a T-bone collision in the center of the RAV4. My truck’s right-side headlight struck the offending vehicle at the A-pillar, which is the post that supports the roof of the vehicle along both sides of the windshield. Hitting at the front wheel also spun the RAV4 away, reducing the kinetic energy of the crash, just like that instructor told me 50 years ago. That slight angle also fired the air curtains over Gwen and Sonja, reducing their impact with the sides of the truck.
Most readers of Incident Prevention drive trucks and pull trailers for a living. And most of us know you can’t make a radical turn without the trailer pushing you sideways. If I had done so, we would have hit the RAV4 more sideways, increasing the likelihood of injuries on the less well-protected side-impact design.
The U-Haul trailer we were pulling was equipped with a passive hydraulic braking system. The weight of a trailer pushing against a hydraulic cylinder between the trailer and hitch creates hydraulic pressure, actuating the trailer brakes. Even with that braking system, the weight of the trailer folded the rear of the truck downward, visibly bowing the truck bed. I can’t tell if the weight of the trailer increased the impact energy, but the jackknifed trailer did plow into the median and slow us to a stop in fewer than 100 yards.
Post-Crash Health Status
After the crash, Gwen was airlifted to a trauma center in New Orleans with a fractured pelvis, a penetrating abdominal wound where her seat belt pressed against her hip, pinching a hole where the pelvis protruded through. She also had a broken foot and a broken hand. After spending a month in the hospital, Gwen is now receiving home-health physical therapy and nursing visits.
I spent a week at Slidell Memorial Hospital with a broken nose, a sprained left hand and foot, and leg trauma from striking the dashboard. My seat-belt trauma was bad, and my brand-new knee replacement was damaged, a situation that is yet to be resolved.
Sonja suffered a ruptured spleen from seat-belt trauma and bleeding in the brain that ultimately cleared up. She is at home in Georgia with her daughter.
The RAV4 driver also survived. I do not know the extent of his injuries, but we will probably learn more in the months to come.
The Important Takeaway
Here is the important takeaway from our experience: Training makes a difference. But hands-on training about recovering control of an errant digger derrick is simply not feasible. What is feasible? Wearing a seat belt. I got to see my truck two weeks after the crash. With all the damage to the exterior, front end and sides, there was a survivable space in the cabin. The cab of the truck stayed intact. Even though the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety only evaluates crash testing at 40 miles per hour, we were protected because the airbags and seat belts kept us within that survivable space. That is an issue in our industry. The U.S. doesn’t demand crash testing of larger vehicles, but the European Union does, and much of that crash data has been used to make big trucks safer. In most crashes of big trucks, the cabin stays intact. If the driver stays in the seat, they are very likely to walk away from the crash. More importantly, if a driver is not seat-belted in front of the controls, they are much more likely to lose control of the vehicle. I would say that most of our drivers do not know how rough the ride is going to be if they leave the highway or carom off another vehicle, especially a top-heavy digger derrick.
During my safety career, I have investigated five digger derrick and bucket truck crashes. Three of them were fatal. Of the fatal crashes, none of the drivers was wearing a seat belt. All the cabs remained intact. The drivers were killed by ejection from the cab in two of those events, and one died from head trauma after contact with the passenger-side A-pillar. I am a big advocate of better driver training, closer monitoring of driver safety practices and seat-belt use. As cars get lighter and traffic speeds increase, we are seeing a greater percentage of highways deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
This is a good place to address traffic engineering. Highway speeds are set by the conditions that exist on the roadway (e.g., widths of the medians, widths of the shoulders, distance view, number of side streets, curves and hills). They are also set based on a condition known as the 85th percentile speed (see https://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/uslimits/notes/speed_info.htm). Traffic studies have shown that 85% of drivers observing conditions on a roadway will attain and maintain the near-same average speed. About 20% of those 85th percentile drivers will average 5 miles per hour lower than the 85th percentile speed. Two percent of the drivers will drive faster than the 85th percentile speed. If traffic engineers select the data and establish speeds using the 85th percentile method, there will be less variation of speeds, fewer slowdowns and better traffic flow with fewer crashes. Drivers should understand that traffic speeds and controls are part of a buffer system designed to lower the number of traffic crashes. Every time a driver violates any of these controls, the buffers shrink and the likelihood of a crash rises.
The trucks we drive remain as dangerous in a crash as they ever were – it’s just that the likelihood of a crash continues to rise. Are your drivers’ crash statistics acceptable? Is it because of the programs and evaluations you use, or is it pure luck? Remember, your luck can change at any time.
About the Author: After 25 years as a transmission-distribution lineman and foreman, Jim Vaughn, CUSP, has devoted the last 24 years to safety and training. A noted author, trainer and lecturer, he is a senior consultant for the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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