People remain the greatest risk factor

People remain the greatest risk factor

Interview on the subject of road traffic safety with René Früh, Lead Damage Expert for Motor Vehicles, Zurich

Mr. Früh, four people die every week on Swiss roads: Why are there so many accidents?

To start with: every victim of a traffic accident is one too many. Having said that, driving has already become a lot safer. In 1970 there were five traffic accident fatalities per day, eight times more than today. And there were far fewer cars on the road at that time, and they also drove substantially fewer miles on average. Since then, a lot has changed, above all car technology. Active safety systems such as ABS, for example, help to prevent accidents, and passive safety systems such as airbags make the consequences less devastating. Furthermore, people's awareness of the subject has also increased. And finally, the roads today are built more safely.

What has changed about road construction?

The cantons and the states continuously analyze accident hotspots and try to resolve the issue, among others, through initiatives on the federal level. New road construction projects are also systematically checked for road safety deficiencies. This should prevent the development of such danger zones in the first place.

Absolute safety is illusionary safety

René Früh

The catchword is active safety systems: Thanks to ABS, braking assistance and proximity sensors, do I no longer have any need to fear an accident?

Automotive advertising likes to suggest this absolute safety. But this is illusionary safety if you ask me. Modern technology cannot prevent everything. Take parking sensors, for example: If the “proximity sensor system” peeps at every traffic light, the system will shut down. However, having forgotten this later on while in a parking garage, you suddenly hit a pillar. We have more damage involving parked cars today then ever before, due to both automatic steering and personal steering.

Parking damage is one thing – but collisions with other vehicles are really dangerous. And modern technology will be able to prevent that in the future for the most part, right?

Today, cars are already installed with technologies that help to reduce certain accidents. For example, I am thinking of speed limit systems and proximity sensors, traffic jam and braking assistants or pedestrian recognition with automatic full braking. A milestone will be when vehicles are able to communicate with each other. This will let a vehicle with a flat tire warn the vehicles behind it, for example. The problem is: If five vehicles brake slowly ahead of a hindrance, there may still be an accident. Namely, when the driver behind rams into the others without braking because their car does not yet have this technology.

When will all cars be capable of communicating with each other?

After the introduction of a new safety system, it usually takes roughly 20 years until all vehicles are equipped with it because the entire fleet of vehicles must be more or less replaced. But there will always be people in traffic who don't have such systems. I am thinking of pedestrians, vintage cars, bikers, cyclists and even agricultural vehicles. As long as a certain percentage of vehicles do not have these “modern aids”, it is still not really safe. And let's not forget: No matter how sophisticated the technology is, the laws of nature cannot be completely overturned. It is also important that modern systems do not give drivers a “false” sense of security and encourage them to take greater risks.

Do not protect the vehicle, but rather the people

René Früh

When an accident does occur: How effective are the passive safety systems?

A lot of progress has been made here, for example, with airbag and belt systems, the design of the interior and in the entire body. What makes accidents so dangerous is the extreme force upon impact. Modern vehicles are designed so that these forces are systematically guided into the body. There are deformation zones there that reduce the energy. The impact on the driver and passengers is lower. The systems are constantly improved, for example with sensors and the trigger strategy of numerous built-in airbags, in the belt tightening systems or with active headrests.

But there is no perfect world here either. The engineers must make compromises because they cannot know with whom or what the vehicle will have an accident. The important thing is not protecting the vehicle, but rather the people. And naturally that also applies to contact with pedestrians and cyclists. For example, trendy SUVs are safer for the passengers in certain accident constellations, but their height and mass make them more dangerous than smaller and lighter cars for other parties involved in an accident. Despite good progress, SUVs remain problematic, for example in regard to protecting pedestrians, due to their size and geometry.

What role does the human factor play?

I think that each road participant's personal conduct is far more important than any safety system. People remain the greatest risk factor. That is why they must do their part: Seat belts and children's seats only ensure more safety if one uses them systematically. The same applies to bicycle helmets and reflective lighting on clothing. Another issue is alcohol: 20 years ago it was a minor offense to drink three glasses of wine and drive a car. Fortunately, that has fundamentally changed, above all in the younger generation. Now there is a new source of risk: smartphones. We suspect that such gadgets are partly responsible for an untold number of accidents, even if hardly anyone admits this. In a recent study 11 percent of the respondents said that they have written a text message while driving at least once a year, and 27 percent of young drivers said this.

Driving cars is very complex

René Früh

And in 20 years there will finally be no more accidents because cars will drive by themselves, right?

Let's wait and see. Personally, I have my doubts about complete automation. That is because driving cars is very complex in comparison to other transport systems. An experienced car driver does a lot intuitively; their experience lets them judge traffic situations correctly without thinking about it much. Computers must learn this to start with. In certain areas, for example on highways, greater automation is thoroughly conceivable in the near future.

What makes driving a car so complex actually?

With trains, the tracks set the direction. With airplanes there is a third dimension, meaning you can turn left and right, but you can also move up or down. For car drivers, there is only the road that they often have to share with bikers, cyclists and pedestrians. What makes me think twice: You can control airplanes today from take-off to landing via autopilot. And nonetheless there is still not only one highly qualified expert in the cockpit, but rather two.

Katrin Schnettler Ruetz from the Zurich Editorial Department asked the questions.

Rene Frueh
René Früh is an automobile engineer with a diploma from a UAS and has been the head of vehicle experts and accident analysis at Zurich since 2003. His area of responsibility also includes the expertise center, the central office for salvage value business, and Real Garant guarantee processing in Basel. Other positions he has held: traffic accident analyst, vehicle expert trainer, deputy chief expert.

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