APPARATUS ACCIDENTS: CAUSES AND CIRCUMSTANCES
Almost 82 percent of apparatus accidents can be attributed to civilian driver inattentiveness, even with good visibility and level road. Studies have shown that the types and causes of apparatus accidents have remained relatively unchanged over the past 10 years, and that despite a 66 percent increase in the number of responses, there has only been a 14 percent increase in accident rates.
Fire apparatus accidents are a tragic and yet largely misunderstood situation in the fire service. Tragic in that the loss of life is priceless and misunderstood in that the consequences leading up to the incident are often obscured.
When evaluating accident information, two basic sources can be used. The first-data-is valuable in giving a good overview or survey. The second — personal recounting-while interesting, can create either an air of firsthand experience or an air of misinformation. It is important to be able to recreate a particular situation while factoring out aberrant personal opinion, be it in data gathering or personal experiences.
Fire apparatus accidents were never studied so extensively on a large scale that quality conclusions could be formulated. Also, it was difficult to develop meaningful numbers because of the problems of drawing sufficient information from a significant number of fire departments.
Photo by Ron Jeffers
Now, sufficient data is becoming more available. Within the data gathering section of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, several studies have been done on the accidents of emergency vehicles.
In the past, the causes of fire apparatus accidents were often the subject of much conjecture, but there was never any statistical support. The first and most important factor of this accident safety report deals with who is at fault.
The basic question is whether or not the apparatus operator was the primary reason that the accident occurred.
We in the fire service know that intersections are a very hazardous area. The study identified intersections as being 2 ½ times more hazardous to emergency vehicles as to nonemergency vehicles. Naturally other highway areas also have accidents but, according to the study, about 55 percent occur at or in the intersection. With all of these facts in mind, the operators of emergency vehicles were found not to be the primary cause of accidents.
In New York State, the emergency vehicle driver is restricted by law to slow down “as may be necessary for safe operation when proceeding past a steady red signal, a flashing red signal or a stop sign.”
In literature on driver training and the safe operation of apparaus, I have never seen a recommendation in any state that permitted or approved full-speed runs through intersections.
Why do we have these accidents? A key finding from the data analysis demonstrates that almost 82 percent of the accidents can be attributed to civilian driver inattention. This is primarily the fault of the civilian, not the apparatus driver. We can now start to understand the comment that many drivers make when questioned by law enforcement authorities, namely, “Gee, I didn’t even see it.”
Now we have identified the highest hazard area for apparatusintersections – and found that in the majority of instances the fire apparatus operator is not the primary cause of the accident.
What other factors are involved in accidents and how big a role do they play? Let’s continue to explore the civilian driver’s relationship in the accident environment.
Alcohol is a widely acknowledged factor in a high percentage of highway accidents. How big a problem is civilian alcohol consumption when related to accidents with fire apparatus? The study reveals a consistently low percentage of accidents in this category. Actually, only about 1 percent fall into this category Needless to say, this is quite surprising, especially so when current information portrays the use of alcohol in about 50 percent of vehicle accidents in the overall accident data.
Weather conditions often are blamed for at least contributing to the causes of accidents. However, is weather really the villain we feel it is? The report states that an average of about 82 percent of the accidents occur during clear weather conditions. Road conditions are another consideration. It was found that about 60 percent of the accidents happened on a dry highway surface. Wet surfaces accounted for about 12 percent and snowy surfaces accounted for substantially less.
After intersections, straight and even stretches contributed to the next highest level of accidents. The time of day is an interesting category. It was somewhat surprising to find that the daylight hours yielded 59 percent of the accidents. This starts to make some sense when you stop and realize that these are the hours of greatest population activity.
The last category is apparatus condition. The data here is somewhat misleading, but gives a good overview. In only about 5 percent of the cases was the apparatus found to have a mechanical defect. However, this is a much higher percentage than in private vehicles. In New York State this may be due to the fact that private vehicles are subjected to mandatory mechanical inspections while fire apparatus are exempt. However, for whatever cause, mechanical defects are, by percentage, a very serious area of concern.
In review, the study has yielded some important data. It is now apparent that civilian operators are the primary cause of most accidents. Most of these operators will merely have been inattentive and only very few of them will be intoxicated. The accident has the greatest probability of occurring at or in an intersection. The roadway will probably be dry and the incident will have a great possibility of occurring during daylight hours.
The study on the causes and circumstances of emergency vehicle accidents was constructed by Newcomb and Carpenter in 1972 from 1970 data, and was printed by the State of New York, Department of Motor Vehicles, Division of Research and Development. The study took into account, both individually and collectively, accidents over a two-year period of fire apparatus, ambulances and police cars.
One item not included in the study was the total number of fire apparatus runs for each year. Anyone involved in this type of research realizes how difficult it is to get a meaningful accounting of apparatus responses. At the time this study was computed, it was estimated by the Office of Local Government of the State of New York that possibly 500,000 calls occurred in New York State. The number of trucks responding per call would yield rough estimates of about 1 million for the year.
Recognizing that all this occurred 10 years ago, how meaningful is the data today? Reviewing the 1980 and 1981 accident studies, the trends established and research in the 1970 data seem to mirror the trends in the 1980s. The major point is that although there may be some small deviances among accidents over the years, the similarities are strikingly parallel.
One factor that is markedly different between the first study and the 10-year review is that the total number of runs is significantly higher than a decade ago.
While accident studies show relatively similar rates of incident, estimated runs have increased from 500,000 to 750,000, or 66 percent. A large portion of this increase is from newly incorporated fire department services such as EMS responsibilities. In light of this, it is nothing less than amazing that with this large jump in runs, the accident rate has increased by only about 14 percent.
What is different now from 10 years ago? Let’s look at apparatus design.
Some people in the fire service feel that more air brakes and better braking systems may account for the apparent reduction of accidents. Others feel the use of automatic transmissions played an important role in making it easier to attempt faster avoidance of accidents.
Since it is apparent that the human factors of inattention and failure to yield are the primary culprits, increased driver training and apparatus systems that quickly warn and alert civilians will reduce accidents most significantly. Those systems are appropriate flashing lights, audible warning devices and a high visibility color scheme such as lime yellow.
*Data not available, but estimated to be same as 1970