Of Black Boxes And Seatbealts

Dale Earnhardt (3) hits the wall while as his car is hit by Ken Schrader (36) during the Daytona 500. AP

It was NASCAR's blackest moment- the final turn of this year's Daytona 500, and the fatal crash of driver Dale Earnhardt, an icon in stock car racing.

Suddenly NASCAR was circled by safety critics, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR finally responded. Dale Earnhardt's broken seat belt was one of many factors that contributed to the death of the auto racing great, NASCAR said Tuesday in releasing its report on the wreck.

Even After Report, NASCAR Has Critics
CBS News Correspondent Bobbi Harley reports NASCAR's investigation into the accident is doing little to dispel criticism it's a closed organization slow to implement safety measures.
The six-month investigation found the seat belt, the collision with another car and angle and impact in which Earnhardt hit the wall all played a role in the Feb. 18 crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

"The conclusion is not the easiest conclusion to report," said Dr. James Raddin, one of the lead investigators. "We conclude that there were a number of factors in which the timing came together to produce this result."

In its report, NASCAR said it will install "black boxes," similar to flight-data recorders used on airplanes, beginning next season to help understand the forces during crashes and try to improve car safety.

However, NASCAR will not require drivers to wear head and neck restraints, although it said their use would be encouraged.

Earnhardt was not wearing a head and neck restraint when he was killed, but NASCAR said it was unclear whether the HANS device would have saved him. Use of the devices has dramatically increased since his crash; 41 of 43 drivers wore them in Sunday's race.

NASCAR also did not recommend making changes to the design of cars so they can better withstand wrecks, nor did it suggest installing softer barriers at tracks.

"We are still not going to react for the sake of reacting," NASCAR president Mike Helton said, repeating a phrase he used the day after Earnhardt died.

Raddin, a director with San Antonio-based Biodynamic Research Corp., was commissioned to determine what caused Earnhardt's fatal injuries.


NASCAR Report Excerpts
Excerpts from the 15-page summary of NASCAR's investigation of the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, from from Mike Helton, NASCAR president:

  • What killed Earnhardt?

  • The blow to the head most likely occurred as a result of contact between the left occipital region and the right side of the steering wheel during the wall impact or between the occipital (the occipital bone forms the back part of the skull) region and vehicle structure on rebound from that impact. A sequence of complex body motions during the initial impact with the No. 36 car (Ken Schrader) prepositioned the body and head to the right and slightly rearward, immediately prior to and nearly simultaneous with the wall impact. The body and head then moved in response to both impacts, first generally rightward and then generally forward. The helmet was displaced forward on the head, the left lap belt separated, and the relatively exposed area of the left head severely impacted the right side of the steering wheel or, on rebound, the posterior region of the head impacted the interior structure behind and left of the driver seat.

  • The "head whip":

  • It is unlikely that Dale Earnhardt's basilar skull fracture was caused by "head whip" or an impact to the chin. While it is possible that neck tension and torsion at the time of the blow to the head contributed to the basilar skull fracture, it is not likely that "head whip" alone caused the fracture. There is no evidence of injuries to the neck bones, ligaments or muscles that would be expected in association with basilar skull fractures caused by head whip. Basilar skull fractures are not usually ascribed to head whip when there is evidence of significant other blows to the head (such as here).

  • The broken seat belt:

  • The EMTs uniformly stated that they did not see the belt cut by anyone and they did not cut it themselves. While one attempted to use a pair of scissors to cut the helmet strap in order to remove the helmet, he was unable to do so and laid the scissors on the roof of the No. 3 car. None of the tools used to cut the roof of the No. 3 car in the extrication process was near the floor where the left lap belt was located, nor were they small enough to fit into the space where the belt was anchored to the floor.

  • Comments on the accident from the investigative team of Dr. Dean Sicking and Dr. John Reid, professors at the University of Nebraska:

  • At the time of the impact with the wall, the No. 3 car was traveling at approximately 157-160 mph. The car hit the wall at a heading angle of approximately 55-59 degees. Its trajectory angle at the time of impact was approximately 13-14 degrees. The No. 3 car experienced a "crash pulse" of approximately 80 milliseconds in duration. In other words, it was in deceleration for approximately 80 milliseconds. ... Its velocity changed by approximately 42-44 mph as a result of the wall impact. The heading angle, trajectory angle, crash pulse duration, lack of rotation and (velocity change) all made this a very severe impact.(AP)
    Among his findings were that Earnhardt's head was turned toward the right after his car was hit on the right side by Ken Schrader's. That collision caused Earnhardt's helmet to slide forward on his head, exposing the back of his skull.

    Because of the angle of his head and the separation of the seat belt, Raddin found Earnhardt suffered a blow to the back of his skull when his car hit the turn 4 wall almost head-on.

    The blow — caused by the left side of his head hitting the steering wheel or, on rebound, hitting the inside of the car — caused a basilar skull fracture that ultimately killed the seven-time Winston Cup champion.

    But in finding that the fracture started with a blow to the back of the head, Raddin disagreed with a court-appointed, independent examiner who determined the fracture was caused by a violent head whip.

    Helton said the stock car racing organization will commission a study on restraint systems for drivers to take a closer look at seat-belt strength. But NASCAR will not mandate the use of the head and neck restraints that are designed to reduce violent head whips in crashes.

    "We are pleased that a majority of Winston Cup drivers now use them," Helton said. "But we are not completely satisfied. We have intensified our efforts with drivers, equipment manufacturers and outside experts with the goal of helping all drivers find a system in which they feel comfortable and safer."

    As for the seat belt, Raddin ruled out that is was cut by rescue workers as they tried to remove Earnhardt from the battered car.

    "The physical evidence is clear," said Raddin, who showed a blown up photo of Earnhardt's seat belt. "This was not a cutting of a belt afterward. This was a belt that separated under load."

    Raddin attributed the break to a phenomenon called "dumping," which is when the webbing is pulled or moved to one side of the adjustment device through which the belt webbing travels.

    When a dumped belt is under stress, it can separate and tear across the entire webbing.

    Raddin concluded that the dumping was not caused by driver adjustment because the marks on the left lap belt showed it was tightened in a symmetrical fashion.

    A second investigator, Dr. Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska, found that the car was traveling between 157-160 mph when it hit the wall.

    In mandating for next season the installation of "black boxes," which will only record data, NASCAR is following the example f CART and the Indy racing league.

    Ford has been supplying the black-box technology to the two leagues for several years in an effort to better understand the forces in crashes. Until now, NASCAR had resisted using the boxes on its cars, in part because it feared teams would use the information for competitive advantages.

    The investigation, which cost more than $1 million, has been the most far-reaching independent inquiry in NASCAR's 52-year history.

    Helton and the two lead investigators met with the majority of the drivers at a North Carolina country club early Tuesday morning to present their findings. Earnhardt's eldest son, Kerry, and his daughter, Kelly, attended along with several members of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not attend the presentation, but a NASCAR spokesman said Helton has privately gone over the report with him. Earnhardt Jr.'s spokesman said the driver would have no comment Tuesday.





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    • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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