Crash Scene Investigations, With Automakers on the Case

Call it “CSI: Goteborg.”

In Sweden, Volvo has dispatched its own crash-scene investigators since the early 1970s. Its Traffic Accident Research Team responds 24 hours a day to wrecks within an hour’s drive of the company’s Goteborg headquarters, alerted by the Volvo On Call system (similar to OnStar from General Motors).

The automaker is not alone in sending investigators to crash sites, but it pioneered the practice. Today, a number of manufacturers take a similar approach to glean valuable real-world information on what happens to vehicles and their occupants after a crash.

Thomas Broberg, senior safety adviser at Volvo Cars, makes certain that team members do not disturb any emergency responders or police work. “We’ll help if needed,” Mr. Broberg said.

Then they spring into action “once critical rescue work is done,” he added. “Pictures are taken, measurements are made, and impact points of the vehicles are inspected.”

Volvo occasionally takes possession of cars for further study and may ask occupants to complete confidential questionnaires or sit for interviews. Adding to the trove are data recorders, required in all modern cars, that provide valuable speed and reaction information.

The crash data collected by Volvo and other brands has made cars safer. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 8.41 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1947. The rate had plummeted to 1.16 deaths, the latest figure available, by 2017. Be glad you weren’t driving in 1921, when that figure was 24.08.

In 1959, the Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin developed the three-point seatbelt, which is now ubiquitous and credited with saving countless lives. (Incongruously, he was a former aircraft ejection seat engineer.)

His invention had a perception problem, however: Many consumers believed it was safer to be thrown clear during impact than to be secured into the vehicle. So Volvo investigators began performing “olycksutredning,” Swedish for accident investigations. Documenting crash scenes, they produced a report in 1967 covering 28,000 accidents that found all belted occupants survived impacts under 60 miles an hour. The unbelted weren’t so lucky.

The report made news, selling the public on the importance of buckling up. Volvo gave all automakers free license to use the belt design. The result?

Those federal figures dropped steadily from 5.32 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1958 to 2.4 in the late 1980s, when airbags began to appear commonly in passenger cars.

Ultimately, those aren’t numbers; they’re people. To protect them, automakers have added high-tech airbags, crush-resistant roofs, crumple zones and electronic stability control systems.

Developing that technology took old-fashioned forensic work. Computer-aided design might simulate hundreds of impacts, but the real world is filled with trees, poles, structures, Jersey barriers and other vehicles to ram into. Even slamming dummy-packed cars into barriers doesn’t always forecast what happens to living, breathing humans.

At Volvo, all new vehicles are covered for the first three years by Volvia, an insurance company spun off by the car company. In claims above $5,000, pictures and scene information go to Volvo, and confidential questionnaires are sent to owners. Volvo’s database has 43,000 cases and is open to all for research.

BMW’s Accident Research Program, begun in 1977, is active in China, Germany and the United States. It looks at 3,000 data points that tell the story of a crash — “including everything from weather and light conditions to the performance of the body structure, safety belts, airbag systems and driver assistance systems,” said Max Aviles, head of product analysis at BMW of North America.

“We also take detailed measurements of the vehicle to document structural performance,” he added.

Additionally, investigators analyze the road’s layout and roadside features like trees and signs. Clues at the crash site confirm the point of vehicle impact and the final position of all cars involved. Special software recreates the vehicle’s trajectory before, during and after the crash. The people who were in the car are also interviewed.

Like other so-called telemetric systems, BMW Assist lets service centers speak with car occupants immediately after a crash. Impact points, seatbelt use, deployed restraint systems, injury severity and accident location data all go to the call center to assist emergency responders.

That alone can improve chances of survival. The information is especially valuable as car designs and materials change.

BMW’s program focuses on current production vehicles. Mr. Aviles said it was especially valuable to study cars like the electric i3 and i8, with large batteries and carbon fiber construction.

Even automakers without response teams do post-crash research.

The Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network, known as Ciren and run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, involves trauma surgeons, emergency physicians, medical examiners, crash investigators, engineers and computer data analysts at trauma centers throughout the United States.

American Honda sponsors one such outpost, at the Inova Trauma Center, among the busiest in the nation, in Virginia just outside Washington.

Many patients are from affluent Fairfax County, Va., saturated with new vehicles equipped with advanced safety technology.

The Ciren center “has the unique opportunity to capture crash events and information because of our integration with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department,” said John Turley, Honda’s product safety manager. “It has an average response time to crashes of four to six minutes and a specialized Accident Reconstruction Unit available at all times.”

In Honda’s case, “changes to a vehicle are not driven by specific individual crashes,” Mr. Turley said. “Research is primarily guided by looking at aggregated results that identify areas where improvements could be made.”

Like other automakers, Subaru of America is alerted to crashes by its retail service team. A staff of field investigators and vendors performs these inspections. That has led to Subaru to make its EyeSight safety technology, which includes automatic emergency braking, standard in nearly all models.

The car you drive or hail is most likely packed with this advanced technology. BMW discovered the importance of side airbags that offer head protection. Volvo developed whiplash-reducing headrests, as well as airbags and structures to reduce injury during “T-bone” impacts. To reduce spinal injury after a vehicle runs into a ditch, sensors detect the car’s leaving the pavement. Then seatbelts tighten, and the specially equipped seat cushion absorbs the vertical energy that can damage the spine.

And modern technology that was science fiction in the 1960s prevents many impacts and road runoffs in the first place. Equipment that keeps a car in its lane and automatic emergency braking are available in many cars and even standard on many affordable models. The newest generation of technology has reduced front-impact crash risk by 63 percent, Mr. Aviles of BMW said.

Even in just the last few years, crash scenes have changed, said George Bahouth, the principal scientist at Impact Research, who works with BMW.

“We see clear reductions in impact speeds for front-to-rear crashes and a reduction in crash occurrence over all for vehicles equipped with automatic emergency braking,” Mr. Bahouth said. That can spare occupants from brain trauma.

All this work has automakers expecting that serious crashes and deaths can be cut to a small fraction of today’s rates, already much lower than when Volvo sent its first investigators to the scene.

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