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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Stronger Cars, Slower Rescues

But New Car Technologies Are Saving Lives

When two people in a 2007 midsize car survived a head-on crash with a full-sized pickup last year, Captain Clint Roberts could hardly believe it.

The lives of the 18-year-old driver and his 16-year-old passenger were probably saved last November by the Ford Fusion's reinforced steel construction. But Roberts, who makes his living cutting people out of cars, said it made things very difficult for his Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crew as they tried to free the young adults.

The hydraulic cutters couldn't shear the roof posts, so rescue workers had to employ heavy-duty electric saws, replacing blade after blade as they dulled quickly on the hardened steel. Roberts said it felt like he was "just beating the snot out of the tools," adding crucial minutes and delaying crucial medical treatment.

By cocooning motorists in reinforced alloys, impact-absorbing crumple zones and as many as a dozen air bags, there is no question that today's cars save lives. But across the United States, rescue officials and experts said the new technology is also hampering the extrication of injured people, increasingly forcing crews to cut deeply into the critical "golden hour" between impact of accident and treatment by emergency room doctors. An extrication that once took 10 or 15 minutes can now take twice that or even longer on many 2005 and later cars.

To cut through newer cars' reinforced steel and the lighter, tougher new metals used in roofs, posts and doors, counties and cities are spending tens of thousands of dollars to catch up and purchase more powerful equipment.

Then there are obstacles that endanger rescuers' safety. If pierced by cutting tools, pressurized gas canisters that inflate air bags can explode. When air bags suddenly inflate, rescuers can be blown from cars. In hybrid cars, hidden battery cables can deliver a powerful shock.

Before they can even start cutting, workers now have to protect themselves by peeling away the ceiling and interior plastic to see what's underneath. Experts cannot say for certain, but the fear is that delays in getting these victims to the hospital have resulted in casualties.

Roberts, an expert who teaches extrication to colleagues around Florida, said, "We build more fire stations, we make faster fire trucks, we've got helicopters to get you to the hospital. But what's slowing us down are these vehicles that are harder for us to get into."

Rescue workers are scrambling to modernize their tools and investigate new methods of attacking cars with their cutters, spreaders and saws. With equipment just over a few years old, some agencies are arriving at accident scenes only to discover that it will no longer do the job.

Tom Hollenstain, a new auto technology educator at the State Farm Insurance vehicle research center, said, "Because their shearing materials had been so successful for so many years, some agencies hadn't developed a Plan B." Hydraulic-tool makers such as Hurst Jaws of Life must keep designing more powerful equipment, making it heavier and more expensive. A single Hurst cutter and power unit runs about $25,000. And prices rise quickly when you add hydraulic spreaders and other tools.

When a 2007 Lexus overturned, a Bonita Springs, Fla. Fire crew discovered their hydraulic cutters, only a few years old, wouldn't shear the strengthened steel roof posts. The crew had to abandon the effort and move quickly to cut other parts of the car. It should have taken 5 minutes instead of the 20 minutes of cutting and sawing to remove the driver. The incident led the department to invest $54,000 in new heavy rescue tools— a sizable expense for a city of around 40,000.

"If the automakers roll out something new next year, we could be right back where we were at," Assistant Chief Ken Craft said. "That's the problem we're confronted with."

Of course, the flip side is that more people now survive horrific crashes that would have killed them just a few years ago.

For example, the Fusion's passenger, hurt but conscious, was joking with Roberts as the crew worked to get him out.

The driver of the other vehicle — a 2001 Ford F-150 pickup — was killed in the accident.

About three people are hurt in car crashes every minute in the United States. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson said that just like everybody else, rescue workers would have to work harder to keep up with technology.

"The fatality rate for passenger vehicles is the lowest in history," Tyson said. "That, to me, is a pretty good news story."

How to get the latest technical information about newer cars and how to deal with them is a problem for rescue workers. With cooperation from automakers, the nonprofit group COMCARE Emergency Response Alliance is introducing a single Web site that will offer schematics and safety specs for most cars on the road. On the way to a crash scene, rescue workers could flip open a laptop computer and learn about the construction of the car, placement of air bag canisters, and more details.

Before new models come out, automakers say they are doing more to make safety information available to rescuers and toolmakers. For example, Ford is already allowing a look at the skeleton of the 2009 F-150 pickup, built with the strongest steel construction the company has ever employed.

Ford spokesman Wesley Sherwood said, "We want to facilitate the discussion as much as possible, because we understand the critical nature of their work."

Online courses are now available to educate drivers on the rules of the road and the latest defensive driving techniques. Try it today!

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