by Tony Whitney

Imagine the scenario. A motorist is cruising happily through the Swedish countryside at the wheel of a Volvo. It’s a winter evening and visibility isn’t that great, so when an errant moose emerges from the forest and trots suddenly into the road, there just isn’t time to avoid the beast. The impact is enough to cause minor personal injury and substantial damage to the vehicle, though the big animal isn’t fazed and heads back into the bush. Collisions like this are common in any country with abundant wildlife and some of them can be very serious indeed.

Sweden has excellent emergency services and it isn’t long before a paramedic ambulance arrives, accompanied by a police vehicle. Before the medics have extracted the driver from the car, another vehicle turns up at the scene. The Volvo Traffic Accident Research Team has arrived.

Automakers worldwide try to find out everything they can about what happens to their vehicles in collision situations. There’s a constant battle to upgrade safety systems, because buyers are now more aware of passenger protection developments, and safety really does sell cars. While many of the safety systems found in modern automobiles, minivans, pickups and SUVs are the result of legislative pressures, far more are offered simply because buyers are demanding them. Also, manufacturers like Volvo try to stay a step ahead of federal demands and pioneer safety systems.

These days, automakers can simulate collisions very realistically using high-powered computers with sophisticated simulation software. Specialized software can display exactly what happens to a certain body shell when it’s T-boned at an intersection. Crash test dummies even show what happens to passengers in a collision. Even so, there’s no substitute for being able to investigate collisions right at the scene, check out the damage and analyze any injuries that may have occurred.

Volvo set up its Traffic Accident Research Team back in 1970 when the company realized that knowledge of what really happened to the car and its occupants in a collision was a valuable part of product development. Other automakers investigate collisions involving their products, but Volvo is the only company I know that has a continuously-operating team with expert medical consultants involved. Not surprisingly, the current team is better-equipped and a lot more capable that the one that pioneered the scheme more than 30 years ago. During a visit to Sweden a while back, I took a close look at how the team works and talked extensively with a distinguished Swedish surgeon who works with Volvo on the project.

According to Volvo, detailed studies of individual collisions provide multi-faceted insights: about the complex mechanisms in different collision types, about how the safety systems in the car function and about how the passengers in the vehicle are injured – or not, as the case may be.

Parallel with this, wide-ranging statistics are gathered in order to establish the know-how required to map out the probability of a certain type of collision occurring. This kind of information provides valuable priorities when plans are set out for the development of a new vehicle.

Of course, even the most dedicated automaker couldn’t possibly attend every incident involving one of its vehicles, but Volvo tries to get to every serious collision that happens within 100 km of its Gothenburg headquarters. The team stands by an emergency switchboard day and night and heads out the moment an incident is reported.

Volvo must have the cooperation of the Swedish police, because the force evidently leaves the vehicles where they are, if practicable, until the company team arrives. They can then conduct a general study, take photographs and make measurements. At least one person and usually more from Volvo goes to the scene. The police, witnesses and, if possible, those directly involved in the crash are interviewed. Following this process, the car is transported to a shop or to the Volvo Cars Safety Centre for detailed analysis. Valuable information about any injuries suffered is gathered for scrutiny by medical staff. The entire roster of material is subsequently checked out by engineering and medical experts.

Ultimately, the statistics accumulated are used to establish a resource of collision information data that can provide an idea of which types of injury arise in conjunction with which types of collision. A follow-up process checks out international collision statistics and compares them with studies of the most severe collisions in Sweden with a Volvo involved. Each year, about 50,000 claims are submitted to Volvo’s Swedish insurance company, Volvia. Some 15 damage inspectors study the most serious cases on behalf of the company.

Cases which involve repairs above a certain level are subjected to special scrutiny by the research team. Right now, around 1,500 to 2,000 collisions are studied every year – quite a workload for the team.
Says traffic researcher Christer Gustafsson: “Without this process, we would never succeed in making the cars of the future even safer. Many of the safety systems in Volvo cars have been developed on the basis of know-how gathered from real accidents by the Volvo Traffic Accident Research Team.”

Could a process like this work in Canada? There seems no reason why a well-financed team – possibly a joint effort by several automakers – couldn’t locate in a major metropolitan centre and tackle the job. Any scheme capable of contributing to safer vehicles and reducing accident injuries has to be at least worth considering.

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