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SCI: Real-Life “Crash CSI”

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Recent Results

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For nearly half a century, certain car crashes have been inspected and catalogued by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis’s (NCSA) Special Crash Investigations (SCI) Program. Since 1972, SCI has made available detailed levels of data to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that range from police reports to information discovered by professional crash investigation teams.

Each year, over 100 crashes are selected for study, including all data related to the roadway, the vehicles, the occupants and their injuries, and any safety systems in use. These cases are meant to be useful when it comes to examining special circumstances or outcomes from an engineering point of view. Certain cases in the past have sparked interest in the ways we can improve the safety features of cars, passenger trucks, and school buses.

“It’s very much like CSI, but instead of a crime scene, it’s a crash scene,” said Dr. Carl Schulman, a surgeon and injury prevention specialist at the University of Miami’s William Lehman Injury Research Center. Over the past 10 years, the automaker BMW has been working in cooperation with the Injury Research Center, studying accidents and injuries in the U.S.

How SCI Works

As soon as investigators find out about a crash, they are dispatched to the site in order to collect data. The collection process has three parts to it:

  • Inspecting the scene. This involves looking for skid marks and other signs to nail down the point of impact and the final resting position of all vehicles.
  • Inspecting the vehicle(s). This helps investigators analyze how well the safety systems operated, the dynamics of the crash, the amount of damage done, and the strike forces exerted on the occupants of the vehicles.
  • Interviewing the crash victim(s). This provides valuable personal insights that might not be apparent from inspecting the scene and the vehicles.

Other useful material includes police reports and medical records that detail crash information and the injuries sustained.

Note that all the data collected when a crash is analyzed remains confidential. The only information that the investigators are interested in concerns the nature, mechanics, and consequences of the crash. No personally-identifiable data about any crash, or the persons involved in it, are incorporated into any public SCI file.

Positive Safety Results

Instead of helping to catch criminals the way CSI teams do, SCI teams sometimes uncover information that leads to features in new cars that prevent injuries and save lives. For example:

  • Once Volvo noticed that, when cars flew off the road, certain back injuries followed, the company designed and placed an additional “crumple zone” under the seat to help absorb impacts.
  • After Daimler analyzed crashes with whiplash injuries in Mercedes-Benz vehicles, they designed headrests that provided extra support for a passenger’s head and neck.
  • Schulman has noted that a “significant percentage” of crashes have occurred because of medical conditions such as heart attacks or seizures, which caused the driver to lose control. BMW and the Lehman Injury Research Center are currently working on ways to detect medical events in order to protect both the driver and others should these events take place.

The safety of our vehicles continues to improve, in part because of the data provided by the SCI teams. The teams continue to strive for a world without crashes. Peter Baur, head of product analysis at BMW North America, commented that, “The hope is to move more into the area of accident prevention rather than reducing injuries. To do so we need consistent development and on-the-ground research.”

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