Crash Barriers Follow


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When Ashley Cooper came into the fastest corner on the Adelaide street circuit at over 200 kph, what ever went wrong could only ever have had one conclusion.

His impact with the solid concrete crash barrier spelt disaster.

We needed to ask the painful question, should his fate have been written in stone? Was the loss of life in this shocking crash avoidable?

On the Monday following the crash, it was Clipsal 500 boss Andrew Daniel's tearful duty to inform the public that Ashley Cooper, just 27, the father of two young children, had passed away.

It had been a weekend of near death experiences. In another incident, colliding utes cannoned uncontrollably into whatever lay in their paths. In the case of driver Craig Dontas, it happened to be a wall of rubber tyres.

Craig told us: "At this stage tyres are a bit of a softer impact and it saves the car too and it saves the impact on the body. So tyres are nicer to go into if that's what you could say."

Matt Kingsley wasn't so lucky. He, like Cooper, collected one of the solid concrete barriers leaving him in a critical condition.

So should the survival of these drivers depend on luck and the laws of physics?

After crashes like this, the first questions are usually directed towards the safety system of the car.

The V8 Super Cars are simply high performance Holdens and Fords. While they have numerous modifications, the entire marketing point is, they are intended to represent production cars sold to the public.

Professor Raphael Grzebieta of the University of NSW is a world authority on motor vehicle crashes. He's dedicated his life to making our cars and roads safer. The race track is just another version of what he studies everyday.

Professor Grzebieta explained: "Because the cars are probably at their limits in terms of crash worthiness and safety features within them, we really can't do much more I don't think, to enhance their safety."

Pure racing machines like Formula One cars are quite different. They are purpose built for racing circuits designed to travel at over 300 kph and to withstand crashes at extraordinary speeds, while surrounding the driver in a life saving cocoon. The Formula One cars themselves are their drivers primary life line.

So if the very nature of the Super Cars have safety limitations, we need to turn our attention to the track.

"Do we protect our drivers who are in these racing cars? Are we really concerned about their protection and, if we are, I think we really need to start looking at these energy dissipating barriers. Had that barrier been a more forgiving barrier, a more energy absorbing barrier, it's quite possible that the vehicle may not have spun out the way it did," says Grzebieta.

And perhaps the answer lies in a design used in America for Nascar racing. The man behind it is Professor Dean Sicking from the University of Nebraska. A pioneer in safety crash barriers on race circuits and now highly decorated for his life saving innovation. We showed him the fatal footage.

"Most of the force came into the side of the vehicle and the drivers' door and that is the worst possible impact condition for an occupant. Particularly in racing when they are going very fast, so it is a very severe crash," says Professor Sicking.

"You know depending what he struck it could have been survivable. Striking a concrete wall there is little or no hope that he would survive," he adds.

Professor Sicking is now the world leader in his field. Like Grzebieta, he worked on highway safety until the Indy Racing League and Nascar approached him to turn his expertise to the racing circuit.

"We didn't really make a conscious decision to take on this problem. It was brought to us by Tony George and Indy Racing League and I had to be talked into taking the project," says Sicking.

After intensive research, he and his team came up with the steel and foam energy reduction system known as the "Safer" barrier system. You only have to see it once to know this is the way we must go.

"It attempts to extend the duration of impact. If we can double the length of time the impact occurs over, we can reduce the g forces that apply to the driver by half, and that's basically in a nutshell, what we are trying to do," explains Sicking.

Since its development it has been introduced to all Nascar circuits and Indy tracks in the United States and it's paid off.

Professor Sicking told us: "The Safer barrier performance has been far better than we anticipated. Since its introduction system wide in 2004 there have been no serious injuries nor fatalities involving outside barriers on high speed auto tracks in the Nascar or Indy Racing League."

According to Raphael Grzebieta, US racing groups saw the value of experts like Dean Sicking. In Australia our motor sport gurus seem to prefer to run their own race.

Peter McGee has been through the pain Ashley Cooper's family is now dealing with. His son Liam was killed when his racing bike smacked into a solid concrete barrier at Adelaide's Mallala circuit in April 2002.

Peter believes: "If we've got to have barriers, we should have Safe barriers not blocks of concrete. I think if the officials continue to build tracks with concrete walls and continue to build them year after year, and we have accidents year after year, I really don't think they are learning much. As the Coroner said, had there been an air fence in front of the concrete wall before Liam hit the wall, then his chances of survival would have been quite high. I think they are actually regressive in their thinking. Each year the cars and the bikes get faster and the tracks remain the same."

Peter took legal action against the owners of the track and reached an out of court settlement. He remains bitter about the lack of action to make racing safer.

However, Clipsal 500 media man Mike Drewer stated that nothing Today Tonight does will make motor racing safer. It's a lamentable attitude as we believe public discussion is a catalyst for change.

No one from V8 Super Cars or Clipsal 500 would take part in this program, however Clipsal CEO Andrew Daniels did stress the track is the responsibility of CAMS, the Confederation of Australian Motorsport, and is licensed to international standards.

CAMS too would not talk, but CEO Graham Fountain did release this statement: "Not to pre-emp the investigation into Ashley Cooper's death, but CAMS is willing to look at any innovation that makes motor sport in Australia safer."

Professor Sicking says his system could easily be adapted to suit cars like the one Ashley Cooper was driving.

"If it were tuned to match his vehicle, it could have dramatically reduced the