Accident Researchers: Lifesavers Behind the Scenes

Although DEKRA‘s accident researchers secretly work in the background, they are real lifesavers. For 40 years they have constantly worked on making roads safer. Over time their job has changed tremendously.

DEKRA Safety Day in Bielefeld, Crashtest

At the DEKRA Safety Day 2017 in Bielefeld an accident with a motorcycle is simulated. Photo: Thomas Küppers

They analyze real accident situations worldwide to reach the EU’s formulated objective of “Vision Zero”, though their field has changed rapidly since its beginnings in 1978.  “In the past, it was about preventing the consequences of accidents,” according to accident researcher Walter Niewöhner. It has for example been studied at what speeds which injuries would occur, or which accident constellations would have what effect. “Today we study the accident prehistory: where was a reaction point, when did the driver start to break and at what speed did the accident happen,” he explains. It’s also about answering hypothetical questions, for example whether an accident would still have happened if the driver had kept to the speed limit.

“Active Safety” tries to prevent accidents

The past was the time when it was all about “passive safety”, when it became possible to reduce the severity of injuries during a collision by employing safety belts and airbags. These systems are now on a very high level, says Niewöhner’s colleague Markus Egelhaaf. The goal today is to not let an accident happen in the first place; the concept of “active safety” targets prevention. “This includes all the driver assistance systems like emergency brake- and turn-off assistants, as well as for example electronic stability programs, which keep the car on course,” Egelhaaf explains. And if the vehicle recognizes a situation becoming precarious, pretension is put on the safety belt. This combination of systems of active and passive safety is labeled as integral safety.

At the same time, accident researchers within the DEKRA group are team workers. They wouldn’t be able to do all this by themselves. “The company’s strength is that different competencies are united under one roof, which then allow a complex overall view,” says Egelhaaf. Accident analysts, traffic psychologists or the crash test center are an indispensable part. “Important are also the colleagues from the test area, because they make sure that the systems recommended by us keep working over a vehicle’s lifetime,” the accident researcher emphasizes.

In 2012 DEKRA performs fire tests with a car battery. Photo: Thomas Küppers

Automated driving is a big challenge

Niewöhner and Egelhaaf contribute significantly to the creation of the DEKRA road safety report and are involved in numerous projects in Germany, at an EU-level but also worldwide, together with other colleagues from accident research. The evaluation of statistics is also a foundation of their work. Besides public authorities and associations, research contractors are also vehicle manufacturers and the supply industry. Both agree that their work has become much more interesting and comprehensive. “The thematic diversity has exploded by at least a factor of ten,” says Niewöhner, who has been dealing with accident research for 35 years.

According to Egelhaaf, especially automated driving with its large amount of overlap is a challenge, because it also poses psychological and ethical questions. “How long can I keep the driver active despite automated systems, and who bears the responsibility in conflict situations?” In various projects, psychologists are being collaborated with and technical expertise is brought in. A problem in many cases is also that drivers don’t have the proper understanding of how the new systems work, Niewöhner reports. “Many people think that they’re much safer with their assistant systems, when they actually can’t even handle them properly,” he points out.

“The driver reacts better than all existing assistant systems put together”

At the same time it’s important to know what a system is capable of, what it’s made for, when it intervenes, how that then affects the situation and, extremely important, where the system’s limits are. In the past, for example, the ABS irritated many a driver with its vibrating pedal. Today, some people believe that an emergency break assistant generally prevents accidents. In fact, the system does decelerate and reduce collision speed, but is actually designed to draw the driver back into the control loop. “Because the driver is able to identify much more and still reacts better than all existing assistant systems put together,” Niewöhner emphasizes. Those are actually designed for specific situations and are only able to react mechanically.

Bereits 1978 lässt DEKRA einen Lkw gegen einen Tank-Lkw crashen. Foto: DEKRATanz der Giganten: 1988 lässt DEKRA zwei Lkw aufeinanderprallen. Foto: DEKRA1991: Ein Tank-Lkw wird im Crashtest gerammt. Foto: DEKRA1994: Auch Busse nimmt DEKRA genau ins Visier. Ein Bus wird zum Stürzen gebracht. Foto: DEKRAAuch ein Tank-Lkw wird 1994 gegen eine Wand gefahren. Foto: DEKRAWas passiert wenn ein Lkw gegen ein Hindernis donnert? DEKRA hat es getestet. Foto: DEKRADEKRA organizes a crash-test with pedestrians in 2012. Photo: Thomas KüppersThis crash-test with a combine harvester in 2014 doesn't end well for the dummy riding the motorcycle. Photo: Thomas KüppersIn 2017 DEKRA tests the rear underrun protection. Photo: Thomas Küppers

The two experts worry that all road user groups are increasingly distracted on the roads. Especially the use of mobile phones are a problem, which leads to the number of traffic fatalities hardly decreasing these days and in fact even beginning to rise again, says Egelhaaf. The DEKRA accident researchers recently presented a much-noticed worldwide study on this topic. “The use of smartphones in road traffic should be generally prohibited,” Niewöhner stresses. Drastic measures will have to be taken, as they were for the obligatory wearing of seat belts back in the day. A further consequence is also to increasingly set the main focus of safety requirements on people. The accident researchers believe that lifelong learning is a very good idea for road traffic.

It becomes clear with all these new challenges that the accident researchers won’t manage, despite their tireless work for everybody’s safety, to make their own jobs obsolete any time soon.

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