Science tracks the truth about car killings

Ian Scianders February 25 1961

Science tracks the truth about car killings

Ian Scianders February 25 1961

Science tracks the truth about car killings

For the first time a task force of scientific detectives is finding the real reasons behind the slaughter on the highways. Here is what they now know about why ive kill by car and how we might, in time, save some of the lives we’re wasting

Ian Scianders

TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS kill more people in the prime of life, in Canada and the United States, than any one disease. A “cure” for traffic accidents would save more lives than Salk vaccine and penicillin put together. And a small group of research scientists at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., is well on the way to proving that most traffic accidents can be cured if the same scientific intelligence that defeated polio and pneumonia can be focused on this other major killer.

Making the diagnosis is a five-year project called the Harvard Medical School Fatal Highway Collision Project — FHCP for short. Now entering its third year, it involves an exhaustive investigation of every fatal traffic accident in an area of eight hundred square miles around Boston, and it’s being financed by a U. S. government grant of eight hundred and ten thousand dollars.

The grant acknowledged the urgent need to reduce motor accidents, which are responsible for forty thousand deaths a year in the U. S. and four thousand in Canada, and which disable more humans than they kill. Dr. Ross A. McFarland of the Harvard School of Public Health, one of the world’s top experts on transportation safety, says if present trends continue one person out of ten in the U. S. and Canada will be killed or injured in an accident in the next fifteen years.

The chief value of the Harvard researchers’ work may lie in the fact that for the first time drivers and pedestrians alike will be told in clear language exactly what causes accidents. There will be surprises in their findings—one of them that most accidents occur at relatively low speeds. Surprises, of course, are to be expected when detectives solve a mystery. And the members of the FHCP team are very special detectives.

They are all experts. Their director is Alfred Moseley, a long, lean psychologist from Tennessee whose wife is one of a brace of psychiatrists in the group. The other members range from Andy Newcombe. a grizzled, greasestained man with a local reputation of being the best garage mechanic in New England, to the urbane, carefully groomed chairman of Harvard Medical School's Department of Legal Medicine. Dr. Richard Ford, an internationally famous forensic pathologist and criminologist who acts as co-director with Moseley.

Among them are a man with degrees in both automotive and medical engineering. an ophthalmologist, a traffic engineer, a lawyer, a social worker, a physician and a statistician. The group is the first to bring to accidents the same approach other researchers have brought to such diseases as diabetes, tuberculosis, polio.

"For sixty years,” Moseley explains, “we've been killing with automobiles and nobody knows why. We’re trying to diagnose the disease.” This team “solves” accidents with the same techniques the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard use in solving murders. In one case, after a bus killed a nine-yearold boy on the outskirts of Boston, the driver claimed he had clearly seen the lad standing safely on the sidewalk, looking at the bus as it approached. “He saw me coming so I thought he’d stay where he was until I passed.” said the driver. “Instead, just as I got up to him he stepped off the curb right in front of me.”

Police officers shook their heads skeptically. The story sounded like one a frightened man might tell to conceal negligence.

Could the boy have been a suicide? Child suicides are so rare the possibility was hardly worth considering.

Could he have looked at the bus without seeing it? There was no record of his vision being faulty, nor were there outward signs of this, but it seemed the likeliest explanation. A brain tumor can impair the sight, and during the autopsy Dr. Ford searched for and uncovered such a tumor. It had not affected the right eye but had almost blinded the left eye. The bus had traveled toward the boy from his left. So the mystery was cleared up and the driver freed from suspicion.

In another case tackled by the FHCP. the driver of a car that killed a pedestrian told police he couldn’t stop because his brakes had failed. The brakes worked perfectly when police tried them a few minutes after the accident, but Murray Burnstine. the FHCP’s automotive and medical engineer, had a hunch that something had temporarily blocked the brake fluid. He and Andy Newcombe took the brake system apart piece by piece. Finally, Newcombe found a tiny loose tack that shouldn’t have been where it was, and a series of experiments by Burnstine and Newcombe proved that the tack could have blocked the brake fluid and been responsible for the pedestrian’s death. The FHCP report helped exonerate the driver.

The FHCP even saved a youth of seventeen from a prison term, although the accident rate of seventeen-yearolds is so high that when one of them is involved in a fatal accident he has two strikes against him before he enters the courtroom. In this particular case a seventy-five-year-old passenger had died when a car driven by the teenager left the highway and crashed into a tree. The youngster said he had lost control when a front tire blew out.

One front tire had indeed blown out but police contended it had done so at the instant of impact with the tree, not before. They contended, too, that the auto shot off the road in a straight line, which would have supported their theory that the accident caused the blowout, instead of being caused by it.

The tracks the car left on the paving looked as though it had traveled in a straight line, as police said, but FHCP investigators weren’t satisfied. They took precise measurements. From these they learned that the car had veered two and a half inches in its last seven feet on the highway.

They then photographed the tire through a microscope a fraction of an inch at a time, six hundred times. The casing fibres, greatly magnified in the pictures, had a message for the trained eyes of scientists: the spot that gave way in the tire had been damaged a long while and could have blown out while the car was on the highway, for no reason except that it was weak. This was a further bit of evidence that favored the driver.

Then, as a clincher, the pictures revealed on close examination that one part of the tire had folded under another part, leaving marks. This couldn't have happened unless the tire was flat while the car was in motion — and it wasn’t in motion after striking the tree. The charges against the teenager were dismissed.

Considered separately, the boy and the bus, the tack in the brake system and the teenager’s blowout prove little. But, related to scores of other cases by the FHCP. they assume significance in the pattern that is beginning to appear.

The boy and the bus underscore the fact, not generally realized, that many traffic fatalities can be traced to physical defects. Within a few miles and months of the boy’s death, a man died in the same circumstances, stepping from the curb into the path of a car whose driver had seen him glance toward it, but which, seemingly, he did not see. His left eye was glass.

Alfred Moseley, the FHCP director, doesn’t know what can be done to protect pedestrians who have lost the sight of one eye, but he does know people should be kept out of the driver’s seat if they have seriously impaired vision or other disabilities that may involve them in accidents. In his opinion, a lot of drivers shouldn’t be driving.

In this category was a driver who, after he’d run over and killed a woman. said that she had been carrying an umbrella and that this might have prevented her from seeing his car. What color was the umbrella? He couldn’t say. Did the woman really have an umbrella? Well, an eye test made the reason for his vagueness apparent. If the woman luid had an umbrella, he couldn't have seen it.

Another driver who shouldn’t have been driving was a businessman with a history of blacking out. One day he left his office early because he was feeling ill. He refused the offer of an employee to chauffeur his car for him. saying he’d be all right by himself. Fifteen minutes later he slumped over the steering wheel, dead from a ruptured brain artery (as an autopsy showed later), and his car collided with three parked cars, killing a child in one of them.

Then there was a driver who was fatally injured CONTINUED ON PAGE 34 when his car suddenly started zigzagging aimlessly and sideswiped a truck. A notebook in his pocket provided the clue to what had happened. The last entry read: “Dilantin, $2.50.” Dilantin is a drug to counteract epileptic seizures.

Continued from page 22

He has no sympathy for drivers with a disability, or for those driving cars known to be defective

Like physical disabilities in humans, mechanical defects in cars and weaknesses in tires are a major cause of accidents. They are sometimes unsuspected, like the tack in the brake system of the car that killed the pedestrian and the flawed fibres in the teenager’s car that hit the tree. But Moseley’s studies have convinced him the average man driving a defective car is aware it is defective and is gambling on not having trouble. He has no sympathy for these drivers or for anyone who knowingly drives with a physical disability that endangers others, and says that when they kill people they should be treated almost as murderers.

His views on punishing individuals who are to blame for traffic fatalities have been conditioned by the constant sight of battered corpses, maimed survivors, grieving relatives. For Moseley is on twentyfour-hour call and, since the worst accidents are usually after dark, he’s aroused night after night by his bedside telephone. It’s always the police, who co-operate with the FHCP, and it's always to tell him of a tragedy. As he picks up the phone he asks, automatically, where "it” happened. He relays the details to Andy Newcombe, the mechanic; Murray Burnstine, the automotive and medical engineer, and Murray Segal, a young but experienced traffic engineer. These three meet Moseley at every serious accident. If he thinks other FHCP experts are needed, he alerts them too.

Then he gets into his clothes, which he leaves laid out for an emergency, fireman-fashion, and heads for his blue station wagon, which has a two-way shortwave radio and is loaded with floodlights, cameras, light meters, instruments for testing breath for alcohol and for measuring carbon monoxide fumes inside a car, and a tape recorder for recording roadside interviews.

While he’s driving, his short-wave radio keeps him in touch with police and with his fellow FHCP investigators, who have their own vehicles and their own equipment.

At the scene they photograph the victims and the wreckage from all angles, measure all tire marks and other marks that might have a bearing on the accident, and question survivors and witnesses. They meticulously note “environmental factors” — traffic patterns, lighting, weather, width of road.

These can be vital. When a car plunged off a highway into a river near Boston, six months after another car had done the same thing in the same place, police put it down to coincidence. FHCP investigators thought it might be more than that and watched the flow of traffic for four hours.

A crossroad entered the highway at this spot and there was a stoplight. A factory stood close to the intersection and had a lane that cut from the crossroad over to the highway.

The observers noticed that some drivers, coming from the crossroad, avoided the stoplight by using the factory lane. Entering the highway, most of them swerved toward the middle of the road, and approaching drivers, startled by this and by unexpected headlights, pulled away to avoid them. The drivers of the cars that went into the river had pulled too far. Because of the FHCP report, entry to the highway from the lane was closed off, and no more cars hurtled into the river.

Moseley and his team also set up a watch on traffic at a turnoff on a busy highway where there had been several night accidents. They found that the signs pointing to the turnoff, in a fifty-five-mi lean-hour zone, were hard to read after dark at that speed. Drivers slowed suddenly to read them — and were hit by cars behind them. When the signs were illuminated, the accidents stopped.

Murray Segal, the traffic engineer, who is still only in his twenties but did outstanding work for the National Safety Council before he joined the staff of FHCP, is primarily concerned with such environmental factors as highway structure, signs, markings, lighting, and the speed and characteristics of traffic. While Segal is looking into these at the scene of an accident, Moseley tests the inside of the wrecked car for traces of carbon monoxide, using an extremely sensitive scientific instrument. Moseley suspects that carbon monoxide poisoning, even when slight, dulls the mind and slows the reflexes of a driver and is the real culprit in innumerable accidents.

If a driver is alive, and will agree, Moseley gives him a breath test for alcohol and draws a sample of blood that will be tested in a laboratory for carbon monoxide and other chemical elements that might have contributed to the collision. (If the driver is dead, his blood will be tested during the autopsy.)

Meanwhile, at the roadside, Newcombe, the mechanic, and Murray Burnstine, thirty, who worked as an automotive engineer in Detroit’s auto plants and took a master’s degree in medical engineering with a thesis on the use of engineering techniques in analyzing brain tumors, start what they call their “autotopsy” before the wreck is moved.

They pay special attention to the lights, for the filaments in the bulbs are frequently broken by the impact of a crash. Because white-hot metal — the filament of a light that’s on — doesn’t break the same way as cold metal — the filament of a light that’s off—Burnstine and Newcombe can tell whether a light was on or off at the time of a collision. This can be important in finding the explanation for an accident.

As an example, when a car twisted across a highway and plowed into a truck, police assumed that its driver, who was killed, had been asleep at the wheel. But the broken filaments in the brake lights told FHCP experts that these lights had been on when the car hit the truck, so that the driver must have been awake and trying to avoid the collision. Since a postmortem showed he hadn’t been drinking and suffered from no serious physical disability, it seemed likely that the cause of the crash was mechanical. When the car was taken apart, it turned out that the bearings in the right front wheel hadn’t been properly greased. The bearings, heated by friction, expanded and locked the wheel, sending the car into an uncontrollable skid.

When Moseley and his teammates go into action they overlook nothing — not even the station to which a car’s radio is tuned.

In one case, this was the clue that paid off. It was one of those accidents for which there is no apparent reason. The driver, although not killed, was critically injured when his car hit the abutment of an overpass in broad daylight on an uncrowded road. The station to which the man had been listening was, at the time, broadcasting the funeral of a political figure. Moseley discovered that this driver had an almost psychopathic admiration for the dead politician and that he had been showing signs of mental disturbance. Then the facts clicked into place. The accident was not an accident but an attempted suicide, and the man had tried to kill himself, dramatically, at the moment the body of the politician was being lowered into the grave.

Moseley says the Fatal Highway Collision Project has not progressed to a point at which it indicates what proportion of traffic deaths are suicides. But he himself has investigated several cases that were either proved to be suicides or that may have been suicides. In one, a man dived from the sidewalk under a passing car at 3 a.m. The autopsy showed he had an incurable, painful cancer. Another man dived under a car after telling his wife, with whom he’d had a furious fight, that she would not see him alive again.

The number of traffic deaths that can be attributed to suicide is probably higher than will ever be known. Any intelligent person whose life insurance policy has a clause invalidating it in the event of suicide will therefore try to make suicide look like one of the forty-four thousand fatal traffic accidents the U. S. and Canada have each year; the odds are that he’ll succeed.

Some traffic deaths that look like accidents may be murder. Garrett Byrne, district attorney of Suffolk County, which includes Boston, recently told a national conference of district attorneys that “gangsters are switching to murder by motor” and that attorneys should adopt the recommendation of Alfred Moseley that they investigate highway killings the way they investigate homicides. Moseley himself says little about murder by motor. But in at least one case he investigated there were grounds for suspecting murder, although it was impossible to prove it. In another case the family of a man killed in an accident thought he’d been murdered. There had been threats against his life. But Moseley’s team found that, although the man had enemies who might have been gunning for him, the collision in which he died had been an accident, not an ingeniously contrived killing.

Because all possibilities of murder had to be considered before being ruled out, the investigation of this case took longer than usual, but the FHCP experts devote days and occasionally weeks to investigating even what seem to be open-andshut cases. Their philosophy is that there is a reason for every accident — a reason they must find. They know that the stage for an accident may have been set split seconds and yards from where it happened, but they also know the stage may have been set days, weeks or months ago, and far away. Because of this, they backtrack from the scene of the accident.

Segal, the traffic engineer, tries to reconstruct the experiences of the driver before the crash. If a man has dined in a certain restaurant at a certain time, then driven a hundred miles under certain weather conditions to the spot where he met death, Segal eats at the same restaurant at the same time and takes the same drive under similar weather conditions. He uses scientific instruments to record the changes in visibility. He measures the intensity of the darkness, the strain put on the driver’s eyes by this darkness and the contrasting glare of oncoming headlights, the stress imposed by the twists, turns, dips and rises in the road. Moseley often does this too, in his own station wagon, forming his own conclusions, and afterwards he and Segal compare notes.

Burnstine, the automotive and medical engineer, and Newcombe, the mechanic, backtrack in their own way, by examining the wear and tear that the mileage of the vehicle has inflicted on its parts. If the failure of a part has been the cause of an accident, they compare it with an identical part from a vehicle of the same make that has gone about the same mileage. By doing so they can tell whether it was defective when installed, whether an exceptional amount of wear was imposed on it by neglect or by some driving peculiarity of the driver, or whether all such parts are likely to give out after five, ten, twenty or seventy thousand miles.

Dr. Ford or another medical examiner backtracks too, for the post-mortem provides information on how the accident victim lived, whether he suffered from cancer or heart disease or other illnesses, whether he had been drinking, whether he took drugs that might have blurred his judgment or made him drowsy, and, in many cases, Moseley or another psychologist, a psychiatrist — sometimes Mrs. Moseley — and a social worker delve into the personality and social and economic background of drivers involved in accidents and also of pedestrians killed by cars.

The Fatal Highway Collision Project has confirmed the findings of other studies, notably those of two Canadians, Dr. W. A. Tillman and Dr. G. E. Hobbs, and of Dr. Ross McFarland of the Harvard School of Public Health, that people who have a police record (not necessarily for traffic offenses), who have been assisted by welfare agencies or who are known unfavorably to credit bureaus are more likely than other people to be accident prone.

Moseley, who received his basic training from Dr. McFarland, repeatedly quotes McFarland’s statement that human beings “drive as they live.” If they live neat, orderly lives, they drive carefully; if they live careless, disorderly lives, they drive carelessly.

By the time it ends, the Fatal Highway Collision Project will provide a detailed picture of the kind of individual most likely to be a menace on the roads.

What will be done when the FHCP diagnosis is complete? That will depend on car manufacturers, governments and the public. With almost three years to go before they compile their report, Moseley and his colleagues are guarded in what they say about their findings to date.

But it’s inevitable that they’ll recommend structural changes in cars—changes that will “build the car around the passengers" and have the effect of packaging them safely. They’ll probably recommend compulsory safety belts, which they feel could prevent a large percentage of deaths and injuries. They'll recommend compulsory periodic physical examinations for holders of drivers' licenses, periodic and thorough examinations of all motor vehicles, and drastic new traffic laws to weed out dangerous drivers and severely punish drivers who are to blame for needless accidents. They’ll recommend uniform traffic signs and regulations for the whole of the U. S. and for Canada and any other country that can be persuaded to participate.

They’ll recommend compulsory driver training in high schools because they believe that, even in the unlikely event that a student never has a car to drive, a pedestrian with driver training is a safer pedestrian than a non-driver.

Meanwhile, the research in the Boston district is attracting attention not only throughout the U. S. but also in other countries. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is among the police forces on both sides of the Atlantic that frequently consult Moseley when an accident baffles them. These police forces have learned that the FHCP has developed a system of telling, from the wounds on the body, where the victim was sitting in the car when it crashed. For example the driver probably has his throat crushed by the upper edge of the steering wheel and his chest injured by the steering column: the front-seat passenger is hurled against the windshield, which inflicts distinctive injuries. and back-seat passengers are flung against the back of the front seat. The police forces also know that FHCP experts have developed an uncanny skill in piecing together what happened from the wreckage.

They’re able to do this because their job, essentially, is medical research. They approach the wreck as a veterinarian might approach an animal or a pediatrician might approach an infant. It can’t talk — but it must tell them something. It must tell them what caused the accident and how it might have been prevented.

For those are the answers the FHCP’s scientific detectives are seeking twentyfour hours a day, year in and year out — the answers w ith which they hope to save many thousands of lives.