How to tell a fender-bender from a pile-up

SYSTEMS that broadcast an alert when a car has crashed risk swamping emergency services with trivial calls about scraped fenders.

Such systems need to get much smarter, says Daniel Talmor, a doctor at the intensive care unit of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Otherwise paramedics will waste a lot of their time attending minor crunches, denying help to those in genuine need. It should be possible for a car's computer to give a much clearer idea of how serious a crash is, Talmor says.

At issue are the automatic crash notification systems (ACNSs) being installed in some top-of-the-range cars in the US and Japan by General Motors, Toyota and others. These sense when the airbag is activated and use a cellphone link to broadcast the car's GPS location to a call centre. There, an operator contacts the driver through a dashboard loudspeaker and microphone to ask if they need help.

Talmor says there is a fundamental problem with this notion. "Often, the driver cannot answer because they either have a head injury or are outside shouting at the other driver," he says. Paramedics sent to the scene may then find only a fender scrape and an argument, he says.

In a paper to be published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, Talmor and his colleagues say ACNSs need to be able to not only relay the location of a crash, but also the possibility of severe injury. Talmor's team has demonstrated that the sensor and recording technology built into many modern cars can help predict the likelihood of critical head injury.

From an analysis of car-crash data collected by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration between 1993 and 2001, the team found four factors that correlated strongly with a driver head injury: whether they are wearing a seat belt, vehicle rollover, whether the driver is ejected from the car, and the rate of deceleration during the crash. Information on all these factors is already collected by the on-board computers of many top-of-the range cars. The computer could process this information and provide an assessment of the likelihood of head injury in the broadcast message, Talmor says.

Such a system would also have to apply to other car occupants, he says. "There's no magic bullet for brain injury, but getting there fast and maintaining blood pressure and blood oxygenation are vital," he says. "You can't do that if you are attending a fender scrape." Fiona Lecky, an expert in emergency medicine at Hope Hospital in Salford, UK, agrees on the need for such a system, as airbags are often deployed in very minor accidents.

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Author: Paul Marks

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THIS ARTICLE APPEARS IN NEW SCIENTIST MAGAZINE ISSUE: 25 MARCH 2006

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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