A Very Unfortunate Story. How Could It Have Been Different?

On October 18, 2016, just before 5pm, a tragic car crash occurred in a city near the foot of the Canadian Rockies. A man (allegedly) driving his 17 year old daughter and one of her friends to an appointment, lost control of his small SUV. The vehicle fishtailed, rolled, and all three were ejected.

The daughter was killed at the scene, her friend suffered brain trauma, and the father suffered serious injuries, but recovered. More than three years later, the father is in court, facing numerous charges in connection to the crash.

From reading multiple news reports, I want to review the factors that contributed to the crash. The pieces I want to look at are the following:

1- The father, alleged to be driving (his defense contests that there’s insufficient evidence to prove he was driving at the time), had a blood alcohol level “over 3 times the legal limit”, which would imply greater than 0.24.

2- Based on multiple reports, all three were ejected from the vehicle, suggesting that no seatbelts were worn. I was not able to find a specific report stating as much, but with all parties ejected and confusion about who may have been driving, I’m going to suggest this was the case.

3- The vehicle was traveling as much as 30km/h over the 80km/h speed limit when it started to fishtail, according to accident reconstruction investigators on the scene (there is no mention in news articles about what caused the loss of control).

4- The vehicle was a 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. Photos from the scene confirm this was the vehicle make, model and year. This becomes important later.

For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to place the impaired father as the driver, as Police contend there is sufficient proof of (some of which is listed in the news reports). Driving drunk impairs judgment and affects reaction time. It’s reasonable to believe this could have been the primary cause of the inputs that caused the loss of control. There’s a reason that impaired driving is a bad idea, and there’s no mystery to this component.

That all occupants were ejected strongly suggests that seatbelts were not in use. For me, this is the most disturbing part of the crash. Again, having seen the photos of the vehicle at the crash scene, it’s certainly conceivable that it was a survivable crash. There is relatively little damage to the vehicle, beyond rollover damage. There were no visible indications of significant passenger compartment intrusion, or fire. Rollovers are where seatbelts do their best work, as ejection significantly increases mortality.

Being vaguely familiar with the section of freeway, traveling at 110km/h on that stretch isn’t necessarily problematic in that it’s not a section with sharp corners. Road conditions, weather and visibility at the time were not reported as factors. 80Km/h roads are typically secondary highway or freeway roads designed for expedited travel, usually with controlled access (no side roads entering or intersections). This particular section was 2 lanes in each direction, separated by a grass median. While traveling 30km/h over that speed is unwise, without another contributing factor, such as traffic, it shouldn’t in itself induce a loss of control. Had the vehicle not been speeding, a loss of control would have been less likely, and the rollover less likely, but not impossible.

The last part is the factor that will be universally overlooked. Can you guess what it is? If you guessed “it’s an SUV, which is prone to rollover”, you’d be wrong. To be clear, yes, SUVs will rollover more easily than a car, but this accident could have happened in a car as well. There’s a specific feature that comes into play in these types of crashes. Electronic stability control. The name varies by manufacturer, but many passenger vehicles manufactured prior to 2007, the year it became mandatory, do not have it. This particular jeep was not equipped with “Electronic Stability Program”.

Stability control is the feature that saves lives every day, but few of us know about or understand. I won’t get into the technical aspect of it in this post, but it’s a rather simple and ingenious system that interacts with your powertrain and braking system, using information from g force sensors, speed and other telemetry data. It will simultaneously limit drive power, and apply braking to individual wheels as soon as certain parameters are triggered. This system, while not infallible, virtually eliminates rollovers caused by loss of rear stability (fishtailing).

In spite of it’s simple operation principle, it is extremely effective in stopping fishtailing, often before the driver is aware of it. During sudden lane changes, it’s not uncommon to see vehicles lose stability in the rear, beginning a pendulum motion of swinging that may become more unstable in spite of correct driver inputs. It’s arguably the most important safety advance since seatbelts, especially because it takes steps to avoid accidents rather than protect occupants during a crash.

This technology was often available on higher end vehicles in the 90’s, but it wasn’t until 2006/7 that it became mandatory in most markets. It’s often derided by those who see themselves as above average drivers, discounted as a “driving nanny”. The stability control system has access to information, and ability to actuate systems, that the driver simply can’t. There is no provision for even the best driver to apply brake force to an individual wheel, or calculate yaw while measuring individual wheel speeds. If you dislike stability control, you probably don’t understand how it works or why it’s necessary.

This safety feature could have saved countless lives in now preventable crashes. Next, I want to talk a bit more about the technical side of it, as well as providing some video examples of accidents that could have been avoided with stability control. Hint: almost every super-car crash/fail video starts with the driver disabling the system by pressing the button.

I hope you found this article worth reading. I’m going to try to change things up more and post some different stories that you might find entertaining or informative.

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