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Massive Crashes

Massive car crashes are headline grabbers. One type is about one crash causing many fatalities and injuries. Recent examples include  — seven members of a high school basketball team and their coach’s wife killed and four injured in Bathurst, New Brunswick; six people killed and 17 injured in a wedding procession in Abbotsford, BC; and three farm workers killed and several injured also in Abbotsford.

The second type is about multi-car pile-ups causing fatalities, injuries and massive property damage. In this type, not uncommonly, the fatalities and injuries seem miraculously light compared to the property damage, which often extends beyond vehicular damage to include damage to the roadway and surrounding properties and structures. Some examples include: —a 200 vehicle pile-up in January 2005 in Ingham County, Michigan in which two people died and 35 people were injured; a 300 vehicle pile-up in March 2005 near Helsinki, Finland in which three people died and 60 people were injured; a 100 vehicle/18 big rig truck pile-up south of Fresno, California in November 2007 in which two people died and dozens were injured; a 70 vehicle pile-up in north-central Florida in January 2008 in which four people died and 38 were injured—(a less “miraculous” comparison); and,closer to home, three major pileups involving more than 75 cars (in total) north of Toronto on Highway 400 on Sunday January 20th, 2008 in which no one died (as of current reports) but at least 40 were injured.

A third type – crashes in which many vehicles are involved, but not hundreds, and in which there may be one or two fatalities – do not usually receive the same amount of coverage.

Massive crashes should be headline grabbers. They are dramatic examples of road carnage and remind us of the huge risks involved in driving. Can we make any sense of them?

The media searchlight roams over all the possible causes. In the first type: the roadworthiness of the particular vehicle, the statistics for the vehicle type—e.g. the crashworthiness and the number of fatal, single-vehicle crashes per 100,000 vehicles by type; the weather and road conditions, the traffic volume; the driver’s record and their physical and mental state at the time of the crash.

In the second type, the “too-large” number of vehicles and drivers involved, ironically, limits the identifiable causes to weather—fog, smoke, rain, snow—and road conditions—slippery, icy, paved or unpaved shoulders, straight or curved, divided by a median…or not. As one commentator noted, “Determining the cause of such accidents is also difficult for investigators and it is often impossible to tell if negligence caused the crash.”

Driving experts, accident reconstruction experts, emergency services personnel, witnesses and those involved offer ‘lessons learned’ that we have heard before: ‘Turn on your hazard lights temporarily to alert following drivers to the accident ahead.’ ‘Increase your following distance’—despite, in whiteout conditions, the taillights ahead often being your only guide, and ‘Slow down.’ The simplest and most obvious advice: “don’t drive when visibility is zero”. But we still feel invincible in our cars.

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