Death on Wheels

1,500 killed, 27,000 injured—that’s the price Canadians will pay in 1946 for forgetting that the careless driver is a killer

ROYD E. BEAMISH February 15 1946

Death on Wheels

1,500 killed, 27,000 injured—that’s the price Canadians will pay in 1946 for forgetting that the careless driver is a killer

ROYD E. BEAMISH February 15 1946

Death on Wheels



1,500 killed, 27,000 injured—that’s the price Canadians will pay in 1946 for forgetting that the careless driver is a killer

BEFORE the end of 1946 more than 50,000 Canadians will be involved in serious traffic accidents. In these accidents 1,500 Canadians will meet agonizing death.

Another 27,000 will suffer broken bones, hospitalization, grief and remorse.

To a sickening accompaniment of steel crashing against steel the rest will get off with wrecked automobiles and damage suits. Repair bills alone for the year’s road mishaps will total more than seven million dollars.

Crystal gazing? Not a bit of it. Those are Canada’s traffic accident figures for 1941, blackest year we ever had on our highways. And, judging by current accident trends, we’re well on our way to hitting that record again this year, with every possibility of topping it.

Highway, police and safety authorities find nothing new or particularly startling in those figures. They’ve watched automobiles take an annual toll of more than

1.000 lives and 30,000 injuries for a good many years. Since 1927 there has been only one year—the bottom depression year, 1933—in which fewer than 1,000 persons were killed.

In six years of war more than 94,000 Canadian servicemen were killed, wounded or missing. During the same six years 10,000 Canadians were killed and

160.000 injured in traffic accidents in Canada. Road casualties at home were nearly twice our overseas casualties despite the reduced traffic and lower accident rate resulting from gas rationing.

And now the death curve has started up again.

Gas rationing ended last August. In that month accidents were 26% higher than in August of the previous year. And the upward trend continued during the last four months of 1945.

What will happen in 1946, now that tire rationing has been removed, is something the authorities don’t even like to think about.

Thousands of cars have been nursed along for a

year or more, used only for urgent trips, at careful speeds, because the tires were “shot.” Owners who can afford to will probably go for new rubber all round, but many will have to content themselves with replacing a couple of the worst tires and adding a spare. In four cases out of five they will put the new tires on the rear wheels. Lulled into a false sense of security by the ownership of a spare, they’ll forget that the old tires are still below the safety margin. The result will be front-wheel blowouts—one of the most deadly killers in the book.

Also, there’s age. Before the war the average age of cars in use in Canada was around four or five years. Now it’s closer to 10. Half are 1938 models or earlier. Thirty per cent are more than 10 years old.

Many of these cars are not in good mechanical condition. It’s been hard to keep them in shape because of the shortage of manpower and repair parts. New parts for all cars—and particularly for old cars —have been hard to get; and it’s the old cars that have needed them most.

In many cases the drivers themselves are hazards. Many people, after three years of driving only short distances at slow speeds, are today less skilful than they were in 1941. They judge distances and the speed of approaching cars less accurately. They are less reliable than they used to be in taking curves at high speeds.

Others, who have been driving regularly through the war years, have become accustomed to war-empty highways, with few police to worry about. They’ve fallen into the habit of taking chances on hills or curves they would never have taken in normally heavy traffic. It’s harder to grow out of careless habits like that than it is to develop them.

Still other drivers are young and inexperienced, starting to drive with far less beginner’s practice than their older brothers and sisters had, because warrestricted gasoline kept them out of the driver’s seat.

War Was Bad Training

AND then there is a fourth class of drivers to add to . our highway hazards. They are the men who drove trucks and jeeps in the armed services. During the war their job was to get their cargoes through, regardless of conditions. After all, there wasn’t much point in worrying about highway safety rules when you were running a 10-tonner along a road under shellfire. And if a dispatch rider or a pedestrian was killed by your truck, you simply kept rolling with the convoy and left it to someone else to look after your victim.

No driver could carry on through months of this kind of driving without developing a mental approach far removed from the “safety first” philosophy of civilian motoring. Most of them will adjust themselves to the new conditions, but the small minority that don’t will constitute a grim hazard for the next few years.

Those are the factors that promise to make our highways more hazardous in 1946 than in any previous year. And all the normal accident hazards will be with us too. About these there is still an almost incredible ignorance.

Not one in a hundred stops to appreciate the tips when he gets behind the wheel of an automobile. As long as that power is applied in one direction only, propelling him along the road, he has no need to appreciate it. But when something goes wrong, he begins to skid, or has to stop quickly—your average motorist finds himself up against implacable natural forces which are not only beyond his control but which he doesn’t understand.

The reason many cars go “out of control” is that most drivers underestimate the power of that force called momentum. They forget that the destruction produced in an accident does not vary in proportion to the speed at which they are travelling. It varies as the square of the speed. Forty miles an hour is only twice as fast as 20, but the energy generated in your car is four times as much. And at 60 it is nine times as great as at 20.

The odds against an accident at 20 miles an hour being fatal are 70 to 1. But this does not mean that you’re immune at this speed.

Accidents do happen when you’re loafing along at 20, simply because motorists forget how long it takes to stop a car. At such a speed, and under ideal conditions—on level, dry concrete and with perfect brakes —an automobile moves 18 feet after the moment the brakes begin to act. And that’s not counting the distance you travel before you can get your foot on the brake after your brain has sized up the situation and flashed its danger signal.

The experts call this

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“reaction time,” which can be translated as “thinking time.” If you have a quick-thinking brain and ideal co-ordination it’ll take you two thirds of a second to act in an emergency. In that time you’ve gone 22 feet. Which means that if your reaction time is right up in the top brackets, your brakes are perfect and road conditions ideal, you still need 40 feet to stop at the very low speed of 20 miles an hour.

At 40 miles an hour you travel twice as far in that two thirds of a second “thinking time”—44 feet instead of 22. But then braking distance jumps to 71 feet. That adds up to 115 feet travelled between the time you saw the danger and stopped the car. At 60 miles an hour the figures are 66 feet plus 160 feet—a total of 226.

What does that mean to you behind the wheel of an automobile travelling a mile a minute? It means you have to concern yourself with what is happening not only directly ahead of you but almost a whole city block ahead. It means that a little boy two blocks ahead of you can roll his ball onto the street from his front yard, scamper after it on a three-second run from his doorstep to the street, and by the time you see him, a block ahead of you, it will be too late or you to stop your car.

“Those figures are fine for the average motorist,” you say, “but I’ve got a quick mind and top co-ordination. I was a fighter pilot.”

Fair enough. Some fighter pilots have a reaction time of a quarter of a second as compared to the average two thirds of a second. That means, at 60 miles an hour, they can begin to apply the brakes in 22)^ feet instead of 66. But the braking distance remains unchanged—160 feet—and the total is still almost 200.

Remember, too, that the braking distances given so far are for ideal conditions—a level, dry concrete road. Add one fourth to all the above figures if the road is wet, or triple the distance if you’re on packed snow without chains. Then you’ll have some conception of the problem in power mathematics a driver must cope with when he’s dealing with 60 or 70 h.p. at high speed.

Lethal Mathematics

Perhaps you’ll get a better picture of how quickly you are travelling in relation to other people’s safety and your own if you think about it in feet per second instead of miles an hour. You don’t need to multiply miles by 5,280 and then start dividing into minutes and seconds. Just multiply your speed in miles an hour by one and a half and you’ll get a reasonably accurate reckoning of your speed in feet per second. And when your needle sneaks up to 85 on that lovely straight bit of highway remind yourself that it represents 127 feet every time a second ticks off.

The forces you set up when you increase the speed of your car build up

on something along the same lines as the chain reaction that makes an atomic bomb. One unit of speed produces a certain unit of force. Double your speed and you produce not twice the original force but four times. Double it again and the resultant force is 16 times as strong.

At 20 miles an hour a car will collide with a stationary object with the same force it would exert if it were dropped 133^ feet. That’s roughly like pushing it off the top of a boxcar. You can count on some badly crumpled fenders, a smashed radiator, and a good shaking up. for all the occupants.

The same collision at 40 miles an hour will produce an impact as great as if the car had been pushed off the top of a four-story building. That’s when

yo4¿ can begin to expect broken ribs and fractured skulls, fractured spines and internal injuries. And if your car isn’t equipped with shatterproof glass all round, there are plenty of nice, gory lacerations waiting to be passed out to you and your friends in the car.

But that’s mere child’s play to what happens at 60 miles an hour. Then the impact is equivalent to what would happen if the car were dropped off a nine-story building. You can “write off” the car for junk after a smash like that, and once in 10 times you can write off the occupants too. It’s this tremendous impact that explains why a head-on collision of two cars, driving at the “safe” speed of 30 miles an hour, can produce the crumpled wreckage and lacerated humanity that are such common sights along our highways. Twice 30 makes 60, and the force that wrecks two cars in a collision is the force generated by their combined speeds.

Crashes at 60 miles an hour are the kind that hurl their occupants through the windshield, the doors and even the roofs (of older model cars) and sometimes strip them of some or all of their clothing. Highway police say it’s surprising how often people are thrown out of cars while their boots remain, still laced and tied, inside the vehicle. The force of the impact is like an explosion.

Even if you don’t collide with anything, speed has the same character of multiplicity in its effect. If at 25 miles an hour you drive into a ditch and turn over your car has enough energy to roll over oiice. At 50 it has enough energy to roll over four times and at 75, nine times. Of course it would probably hit

a tree or a culvert long before it did its ninth somersault and then the unused portion of energy would be spent in ripping the culvert, the car and its occupants to pieces.

What are the odds against coming out of accidents like these alive? The records show that if you have an accident while travelling 20 miles an hour there’s one chance in 70 you’ll be killed. At 50 the odds have narrowed to 1 to 13 and at 60 it’s as low as 1 to 7.

That’s why, although more than half of our automobile accidents occur in cities, towns and villages, two thirds of the fatal smashes take place out on the highways. Speeds are consistently greater on the highway than in the city. And momentum is what does the damage—weight multiplied by speed. For the same reason, although only 25% of our accidents take place on straight roads, nearly half the fatalities result from them.

Furthermore a combination of ideal driving conditions produces more accidents than a combination of hazards. More people have been killed while driving on straight stretches of highway, in daylight, on dry pavement, with good visibility, than under any other circumstances.

It all comes back to a false sense of security and the arithmetic of weight multiplied by the square of speed. Drivers who exercise caution on hills, curves and at intersections, settle back and “open her up” on the fine level stretches. Somebody makes a mistake, and the chain reaction of multiplying force does the rest.

Automobile accidents follow a surprisingly fixed pattern. Nine out of 10 are collisions. Twenty-five per cent are the result of collision with a pedestrian. Forty per cent result from collisions with other motor vehicles; and 10% from collisions with fixed objects—telephone poles, stone walls and trees. About 2% are caused by collisions with railway trains. The rest involve streetcars, horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles and motorcyles.

The one-in-ten noncollision accidents are usually caused by cars going out of control and turning over one or more times. Over a 10-year period those percentages have varied almost not at all.

People Should Be Taught

But there is small consolation in keeping percentages uniform when the total accident toll keeps on mounting. The question that is occupying the attention of Canadian safety authorities today is how to bring down the total of lives lost and persons injured— or at least how to keep it from rising to new records of death and destruction.

Safety officials believe that the three essentials for safety on our highways are the “Three E’s” —Engineering, Enforcement and Education. But, while safety engineering has made tremendous strides during the past 15 years, both as regards automobile and highway construction, and while law enforcement agencies have been tightened and improved, neither has succeeded in permanently reducing casualties.

In 1937 Ontario placed two drastic measures in its highway code. One called for a mandatory year in jail for anyone driving a car while his license was under suspension. The other permitted impounding of automobiles for three months in all cases of conviction for drunk driving. Automobile accidents dropped slightly from 13,906 in 1937 to 13,700 in 1938, and fatalities from 686 to 580. In 1939 they remained about that level, but the next year shot up again to nearly 17,000.

In 1937 British Columbia established

speed limits, and, for the first time, began examining all drivers. Accidents dropped 4% in 1938 and fatalities went down 16%. In 1938 the province inaugurated mechanical tests and a written examination for license applicants and accidents dropped another 4%; but in 1940 they shot right back up again.

Those instances suggest that enforcement alone isn’t the answer, although there is no doubt that states or provinces with strong laws, enforced with determination, fare better than those without them.

The only ultimate answer must be education. Until everyone learns of the lethal dynamite that lies beneath the hood of an automobile, and can picture in his mind the mathematics of highway travel, all the safety devices

and all the legislation in the world won’t curb accidents.

Accidents are, often as not, a state of mind—a false sense of security, a failure to realize the tremendous power that is so smoothly controlled by a finger tip when everything goes right, but that bursts its bonds to become a diabolic enemy at the first slip.

There is an old English common law precept that “a man may be presumed to intend the consequence of his acts.” Applied literally, that would mean that every one of Canada’s highway fatalities could be described as murder. Before we can hope to check the accident toll, the motoring public must regard traffic deaths in that light. And until it does, five times a day in Canada there will be a murder on wheels.