Murphy's Law Is Wrong: Managing Safety in MotorsportsS

I had the privilege to, for likely the only time in my life, communicate with triple world champion Sir Jackie Stewart. Few men, if any, have been greater or more effective advocates for safety in Formula 1. Being a transportation safety professional, I was eager to ask him about F1's current safety programs. I have quoted his response below:

What we have is built in to our cars and also regulates safety. Our fuel systems, for example, in my day there were consistent terrible fires in F1. Now there are no fires. The drive in my day was sitting on the fuel tank, that doesn't exist today. They're created in such a way that they won't explode in a heavy impact. That's preventive medicine. We're conscious that if you have a multiple accident at speed, we have tethers on the wheels. We don't lose wheels like we used to. We still have wheels that get lost from time to time. A wheel came off a Williams and it cost them thousands and thousands of dollars, a fine by the FIA. A lot of drivers have been killed by wheels flying back like that, Senna, Mike Spence, etc. We've governed against those things happening. We have impact testing like the car industry.

Mr. Stewart gives a impressive list of hardware improvements on the car. Elsewhere in the Q&A he mentions the addition of track improvements and properly qualified medical personnel. Yet these changes came in reaction to serious safety failures, and often only address the most visible failure. A wheel falls off? Tie the wheel on. A physician not qualified to treat heavy trauma? Get a new physician. A driver dies after crashing into a tree? Put up a wall. If this seems simplistic, that's because it is. The risk is mitigated, but only passively, and only after the hazard causing the risk becomes the cause of a crash. The systems and culture that created the risk is only changed indirectly, if at all. To ensure the safe continuation of motorsports, risks must be actively managed, and hazards must be realized before they become the causes of tragedies.

Before I continue, understand that while hazards are a constant in motorsports, risks are not. Hazards are conditions and objects with the potential to cause damage and injury under certain circumstances. In motorsports, tires are hazards for their the potential to fly into objects and people. Fuel is a hazard for its potential to burn. Drivers are hazards for their potential to shunt. These hazards cannot be removed and become causes when a safety incident occurs. As for risks, they are the composite of hazards, the probably of the hazard to cause damage, and the severity of the damage caused. Risks are mitigated down to acceptable levels with measures such as tire cables, fireproofing, and driver training, but they never go away completely. Furthermore, only the probability of the hazard causing damage and the severity of that damage, not the hazard itself, may be mitigated at all.

The ability to mitigate risks but not hazards means that focusing on the simple, passive causes, such as the ability for tires to hit things, is never enough. Consider this Australian comedy sketch concerning a maritime accident:

Why did the accident happen? The front fell off. It doesn't usually happen, but it happened this time. The video is comedy, but none of that is incorrect. Race cars, like ships, are built not to crash, and usually don't crash. Yet all of the safety measures listed by Mr. Stewart came in response to crashes; crashes caused by hazards as well known to motorsports as waves are to ship designers. And if they weren't that well known, they should have been. Yet nothing was done until after the fact, a trend that continues to this day.

Consider four of the most recent high-profile motorsports deaths; Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994, Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001, Dan Weldon at Las Vegas in 2011, and Allan Simonsen at Le Mans in 2013. Senna's crash resulted in the reformation of the Grand Prix Driver's Association and a few regulatory changes, but two unmitigated risks particularity stand out. First, the runoff area at Imola was woefully insufficient. Sure, an F1 car should be able to navigate Tamburello without crashing, but things that can go wrong usually don't. Officials confused usually don't with never will, and didn't change the design until the hazard became an accident cause. Secondly, the Williams mechanics used an untested fabrication to adjust Senna's steering column, a fabrication that ultimately broke. F1 mechanics are some of the best in the world, and their fabrications almost never fail. They confused this with will never fail and sent Senna out, thinking their experience was sufficient testing.

In the case of Dale Earnhardt, his crash resulted in the greatly-improved Car of Tomorrow, the SAFER barrier, and improved seat belt and helmet regulations. But NASCAR knew that crashing head-first into a concrete wall was dangerous, especially with an unrestrained head and improperly-installed seat belt. But it never happened before, so no one did anything to reduce the risks; at least until after the fact. Even today, NASCAR has not adequately mitigated the risk of crashing perpendicularly into a concrete wall at high speed, as evidenced by Mark Martin's nearly-fatal crash in the first Michigan race of 2013. That crash rarely happens, but it does happen. Similarly, NASCAR didn't think its jet dryer drivers, operating a vehicle full of the hazard of jet fuel, needed to wear safety equipment because they probably wouldn't get into an accident. Whoops.

In the case of Dan Weldon, officials, teams, and drivers knew for years that running open-wheeled cars on intermediate ovals at full throttle with maximum down force was dangerous, but no one died, so nothing was done. Since then, the cars run reduced down force on intermediate ovals, have bodywork around the rear wheels, and posts have been moved outside of the catch fence. Indycar didn't need to wait for someone to die before doing this; everyone knew it would make the racing safer. Especially Dan, a test driver for the new car. But such crashes rarely happen, so change came too late, In the case of Dario Franchitti at Houstion in 2013, we're still waiting for a safe-enough fence.

Similarly with Allan Simonsen, the ACO knew, or should have known, that a high-speed collision into the hard Armco at Tertre Rouge would be extremely dangerous. But a car should be able to navigate the corner, and the Armco remained. Time will tell if June's reminder that a car can go off there will lead to any changes.

There's no reason why these safety improvements can't happen before an accident instead of after one. There's no reason why motorsports has to learn things the hard way. Part of the reason we learn things the hard way is cultural. Everyone knows crashes happen, and happen often. I would be greatly surprised if a professional racing driver could remember even half of the crashes they've had. Everyone knows the mechanisms by which drivers die, even if some drivers don't seem to care. That doesn't mean motorsports should resign itself to this inevitability. Sure people usually don't die in crashes, but that doesn't mean they never will. Yet signs of this resignation are found at the highest level of motorsports. After the death of Allan Simonsen, the barrier was returned to pre-race condition, even though that condition contributed to his death. Also, in 2011, Adrian Newey said that the no one would ever know why Senna's car, a car Newey designed, crashed. "We'll never know" is not a good attitude for someone involved in an accident investigation, but for larger cultural reasons an understandable one.

After the crash, both Newey and Williams technical director Patrick Head were charged in Italian courts for manslaughter. The Italians focused on the simple solution of criminal negligence with the intent to make an example, not to directly make F1 safer. Contrary to the beliefs of many prosecutors, litigation, or any type of punishment, actually has a negative effect on safety. Rather than scaring mechanics into being especially careful, the threat of litigation would keep teams from reporting safety incidents and previously unknown risks. Furthermore, no mechanic wants to raise a safety concern with the technical director if it will only result in claims of insubordination.

So what risks can motorsports proactively mitigate now? Off the top of my head, I can think of energy-absorbing barriers along the complete inside and outside of walls, replacing walls with runoff areas or gravel traps wherever possible, FIA or series certification of all major components, stricter pre-race and post-race safety inspections, and a non-punitive FIA or series-sanctioned crash-investigation panel with full access to any wreckage. I'm sure you, especially those heavily involved in motorsports, can think of more without waiting for another crash or death.

But what of acceptable risk? The constant nature of hazards means that risks are never completely eliminated, short of not racing at all. But the acceptable risks must be defined and agreed upon by all parties, and tests conducted to ensure risks stays below those levels. Some measures, such as crash testing and driver testing, accomplish this. But considering Senna's steering wheel again, that was a part tested by no one. Even today we cannot calculate its likelihood for failure. Almost twenty years later, the risk of failing parts has not been properly mitigated.

Jackie Stewart is likely the greatest safety advocate in the history of F1, but even he equates rarely occurring with never occurring. He says fires don't happen when petrol is still flammable; just ask Williams. He also speaks highly of fines to ensure safety, but after paying the fine, Williams assured the FIA they solved the problem. Did they? Who knows, but with the threat of fine, you can bet Williams won't be eager to tell the FIA if they find another problem or let the FIA test their fix. Going forward, we're counting that the things that rarely happen never will. Until we implement a proactive safety culture, for everyone involved in motorsports, let's hope those rare failures stay at bay.

Photo credit: Nicolas Weaver & Wikimedia Commons