While there is no conclusive manner to determine how many of these victims would have been saved had they been wearing their seat belts, it is a safe assumption that a large majority of them would. This assumption applies especially to the 20 victims who were partially or totally ejected from the apparatus. A 1999 DOT report (DOT HS 809 090; available at www.nhtsa.dot.gov) indicates that the proper use of seat belts by heavy truck occupants reduces the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent. The 1999 DOT relayed the following endorsement for seatbelt use in large trucks, which fire apparatus definitely meet the definition of:
2. Eight out of ten fatalities in rollover accidents involve occupant ejection from the vehicle.
3. Occupants are 22 times more likely to be thrown from the vehicle in a rollover accident when they are not wearing your seat belt.
When one examines the true causes of tanker crashes, four major factors become apparent:
- The apparatus wheels leaving the right side of the road (Figure 1)
- Excessive speed
- Overcorrection/oversteering by the driver when attempting to bring right wheels back onto the road surface
- Failure to negotiate a curve
Photo courtesy Mike Wieder
From those four major factors, two pairs of interrelated causes may be discerned. The first is the combination of allowing the apparatus wheels to drift off the right side of the road and overcorrection or oversteering when trying to bring the wheels back onto the road surface. In nearly two-thirds (65.8 percent) of the crashes that were studied, the apparatus drifted off the right side of the road. Once the right side wheels were off the roadway, in three-quarters (76 percent) of the cases, the crash then occurred as a result of the driver attempting to bring the vehicle back onto the roadway and then losing control. In the remaining cases, the vehicle either rolled over or struck an object (pole, guardrails, bridge rails, etc.) once the wheels were off the right side of the driving surface. Information on how to avoid these types of crashes and safely bring a vehicle back onto the driving surface are covered in Chapter 4 of this report.
The other pair that is typically interrelated is excessive speed and failure to safely negotiate a curve. In most cases, the reason that the curve was not safely negotiated was because the apparatus entered the curve at an unsafe speed. In several of the cases that were studied, it was noted that the apparatus was well above the posted recommended speed for the curve on which the crash occurred. However, excessive speed is not only a problem when trying to negotiate curves. It is often the reason that the right wheels drift off the road surface, that the apparatus is unable to come to a stop at intersections, or that the driver is unable to control the vehicle when a mechanical failure occurs. Simply slowing down and driving the apparatus at a reasonable speed will prevent a significant number of crashes from occurring.
Clearly, some of the information related to the statistics and causes of fire department tanker collisions would come as no surprise to anyone. On the other hand there are a few of these findings that seem to defy what many people might have thought prior to the USFA's study. For example, the lack of intersection crashes as noted earlier in the article may have come as a surprise to some fire service personnel.
Another finding, or lack thereof that has caught many by surprise is that only three of the collisions listed poor apparatus design or poor mechanical condition of the apparatus as causes for the collisions. Because many fire departments use retrofit vehicles (in many cases home-built) and surplus military vehicles as tanker apparatus, it was naturally assumed that this would be a significant factor in fatal collisions. However, this fact did not come to life in the study.
The information in this article clearly shows that if firefighters wear their seatbelts, operate the vehicle at a reasonable speed, and keep the wheels on the driving surface that they likely will not be involved in a fatal collision. It sounds simple, but if it were that simple we wouldn't have the problem to address. In the next two parts of this series we will examine 20 ways to decrease your chances on being killed in a fire department tanker.