by Richard Russell

Gothenburg, Sweden – Pity the poor designer at a company where appearance takes a back seat to safety. Volvo’s chief designer, Peter Horbury explains: “Turn the key in a BMW or slam the door in a Mercedes and you know immediately where your money went. A Volvo driver has to have the worst experience of his life – a severe crash – to appreciate our efforts”.

Making it look good may be a challenge – but making it safe is a given.

Traffic safety is a fixation in Sweden. This tiny nation of 450,000 square kilometres, 70% of which is comprised of either mountains or forest, has a population of less than 9 million people. Yet it has two native car companies, Volvo and Saab, and a worldwide reputation for vehicle safety. In addition, investigators and scientists employed by these companies conduct extensive investigation into crashes – on site. And they are protected from being forced to testify to their findings in court, ensuring that if they find a problem, they can report and correct it.

“Any vehicle manufacturer who wants to be taken seriously must consider safety research and development in real world conditions – not just mandated test standards.” This attitude has allowed Volvo and Saab to take a leadership position. Rather than merely design to specific standards or tests, they are continually out in front – either helping set them or ensuring protection for occupants in areas legislators have not even considered.

Humans haven’t changed all that much over the years but the traffic environment certainly has. With the unique ability to conduct thorough on-scene investigations, researchers can determine how specific vehicles and their systems perform. They also have complete access to the medical records of the occupants; this knowledge is taken back to the shop and applied directly to everything from crash test procedures to the dummies used in testing. It is used in programming virtual tests and in designing vehicle components – often without any requirement to do so.

For example, whiplash is not included in any government tests, yet it is one of the most common and costly results of a crash. There are no standards that address this issue, no requirements for manufacturers to provide protection beyond a head restraint. Volvo and Saab researchers found it to be a major issue in crashes. They discovered head restraints weren’t the cure. Both have designed seats and systems to address the issue. They were put into production a few years ago and subsequent analysis of crashes involving these seats are showing a significant real-world reduction in this type of injury.

Seat belts, now an integral part of the safety system of every passenger vehicle on the market came about under similar circumstances. Volvo introduced the three-point belt in 1959, as the result of knowledge and concern, not legislation.

What’s next?

Roads and vehicles are vastly improved. What’s needed now to reduce death and long-term injury is more information from the crash scene. If response teams arrived with more knowledge about the event and the occupants, precious time would be saved, allowing them to provide relevant treatment to those most in need.

Volvo’s research shows the most common cause of death to be damage from bi-lateral fractures of the femur, head injuries, pelvic injuries, internal bleeding from chest, abdomen and pelvic injuries. Deaths from motor vehicle crashes can be divided into three categories, with possible solutions in brackets: 1) dead at the scene (safer cars, better drivers) 2) die within one to three hours of crash (reduce response time – gain “golden hour”) and 3) die from infection, internal bleeding complications and/or multi-organ failure (earlier and more accurate diagnoses of injuries). The third group would automatically shrink with improvements to #2.

It is not a huge stretch to the stage where the vehicle’s telematics system reports to the call center not only an airbag deployment, complete with time and location; but also the size and position of the occupants both before and after the event and whether or not they were belted in. Heart rate sensors could detect and report on that information. In addition medical folks would benefit from knowing: crash type – frontal or side impact, hit from rear or rollover; severity of velocity change – how hard was the crash and the final vehicle orientation.

Not only would the rescue crews be better informed, expensive duplication of effort could be avoided – two or more units responding to a single-vehicle, single-occupant crash. Officials could be informed as to whether traffic had to be diverted to avoid further crashes and problems.

In Sweden such co-operation and effort is highly likely. In other jurisdictions it might be more difficult.

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