Wednesday, 9 February 2011

How To Survive A Car Crash

BBC tv’s Horizon programme on surviving a car crash was shown earlier this week (6th February). It was less a useful guide to getting out of trouble, more a look at the research and investment going into reducing the number of car drivers and occupants killed and maimed in crashes. P1040981 Timely, considering that road crashes kill over 1 million people a year. Surviving means understanding what happens during a crash. Apparently, a crash has three stages, which happen in milliseconds: first, impact of the car; second, impact of the occupants on the car (and vice versa); third, what happens to all those soft squidgy organs inside the bodies of the occupants after 1 and 2 (particularly the brain - in developed countries, 75% of traumatic brain injuries are apparently caused by car crashes.Not surprising, given one doctor’s description of the brain as, an average of “1.2kgs of jello floating in a bowl of liquid, attached by a few veins and nerves”).

The best way to not be killed (or end up in a persistent vegetative state - described by one medic as “worse than death” is to not get into a car crash in the first place. For this, the only sure fire way is to not get into a car. But, as any student of behavioural economics knows, once inside a car, even the most capable brain can get overloaded, reducing our processing power and producing sub-optimal decisions. When driving a car, such minor mistakes can have major consequences. So it’s a good idea to reduce cognitive distractions which can overload the brain when driving: talking on the phone may not be illegal if it’s hands-free, but it’s ill-advised, even when it’s not against the law. Even at 30mph, a car crash is equivalent to falling off a 3 or 4 storey building. Horizon showed that there’s a Golden Hour after a crash, crucial for arresting injuries. Innovative ICTs are coming to the rescue during the Golden Hour - deploying an ‘urgency algorithm’ to link onboard computers to hospital medical centres; using telemedicine to help ambulance crews; advanced vision technology, augmented reality and GPS-based avoidance systems to reduce the risk of error.

But amongst all these expensive technological solutions, there were a couple of noticeable absences: first, the phenomenon of “risk compensation,” whereby individuals change behaviour in response to perceived changes in risk – from seat belts to anti lock brakes, studies show that drivers adjust their ‘risk thermostats’ to take advantage of these new protections. A Wiki article notes at least three studies which show that drivers’ response to antilock brakes is to drive faster, follow closer and brake later, accounting for the failure of ABS to result in any measurable improvement in road safety. The second omission was any reference to people hit by these increasingly “safer” cars – pedestrians and cyclists, who are largely unprotected. Which underlines the strong case for measures to make sure that drivers don’t trade off their increased safety by increasing risks for more vulnerable groups. Like 20mph default speed limits in urban areas. Twenty’s Plenty, anyone?

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