Lady luck seemed to be smiling on F1 driver Romain Grosjean as he walked away from a fiery crash at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday. But neither luck nor divine intervention was the reason he survived. That he was soon able to post a smiling interview from his hospital bed is because since 1994 the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motor sport, has applied a ‘Vision Zero’ approach to safety.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960’s the FIA showed little interest in safety at a time when driver fatalities were gruesomely frequent. It was an era when seat belts were a novelty, track side barriers consisted of straw bales, and the only prospect of medical help might be an ill-equipped ambulance. It took driver campaigns, led initially by Jackie Stewart, to turn the tide towards safety.
Improvements in technology also helped. The arrival of carbon fibre and fuel cells transformed the structural integrity of F1 cars and the risk of collapsed cockpits and fire receded. Meanwhile the sport’s commercial boss, Bernie Ecclestone’s recruited Professor Sid Watkins to transform the sport’s post-crash medical response. These incremental improvements helped and from the mid-80’s F1 experienced over a decade of fatality free racing.
But the tragic deaths of Roland Ratsenberger and Ayrton Senna at Imola in May 1994 were a brutal wake up call. The newly elected President of the FIA, Max Mosley, believed the sport had grown complacent. He asked Sid Watkins to establish a research group to carry out a comprehensive review of safety. Their evidence-based approach has driven progress in the sport ever since. This has transformed safety on the track but has also led to very significant improvements in road car safety.
Mosley assumed that lessons could be learned by motorsport from conventional car safety. He was astonished to discover that crash test standards in Europe had remained unchanged for over twenty years and consumer information on crashworthiness – which had been pioneered in the US since 1979 – was limited to occasional tests in motoring magazines.
In response the FIA led a successful campaign to update European Union crash tests and in 1997 launched the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP). The new regulations made front and side impact tests mandatory and Euro NCAP began publishing consumer star ratings – using even tougher test requirements. The effect was to supercharge improvements in car safety across Europe.
In the mid 1990’s over 45,000 people were being killed in road crashes across the EU. The first Euro NCAP results exposed death traps like the Rover 100. Today, however, most manufacturers routinely aim to achieve strong Euro NCAP results. Over 87% of cars sold in the EU have a Euro NCAP rating and 79% achieve the top-level score of five stars. Last year, 22,800 (not 45,000) people die in road crashes across the EU. And the EU’s crash tests have become United Nation’s standards widely applied around the world. At the same time the Global New Car Assessment Programme is replicating Euro NCAPs five star success in India, Latin America, South Africa and South East Asia.
Serving as the first Chair of Euro NCAP Mosley began working with Professor Claes Tingvall who represented the Swedish Government on its Board. Tingavll was the originator of Sweden’s, now renowned, Vision Zero approach to road safety. First adopted by the Swedish Parliament in 1999, Vision Zero represents a paradigm shift away from traditional ‘blame the victim’ attitudes to road injury prevention. Accepting that human error is inevitable, Vision Zero – also known as the Safe System Approach – promotes a forgiving road system in which mistakes should not be punished by death. It encourages investment in safer roads, vehicle design, and speed management rather than relying on behavioural change. The ultimate aim is to keep crash forces within the tolerances of the human body and as far as possible reduce the risk of fatal injury to zero.
Mosley recognised that Vision Zero was close to the approach being applied by Sid Watkins’ Research Group. Another related influence was the work on organisational safety by James Reason, a Professor of Psychology at Manchester University. Reason is the author of the ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of crash causation which tracks the trajectory of an incident through multiple holes in layers of defence. His theory shows how weaknesses in one layer can be overcome by additional mitigation measures that prevent ever reaching a final failure point.
Both Vision Zero and Reason’s ‘defence in depth’ strategy provide a powerful explanatory analysis of Grosjean’s survival in Bahrain. The crash began with a driver mistake as Grosjean turned into the path of another competitor; exactly the kind of human error which ‘Vision Zero’ anticipates and ‘tolerates’. But from the moment of that collision Grosjean began a journey through layers of defence that the FIA has systematically developed to mitigate the risk of injury. Although some defences failed, Grosjean avoided serious injury – or worse – by a combination of the halo cockpit protection system, the chassis survival cell, his helmet, and fire-proof overalls. And, finally by the rapid response of the medical car team of Alan van der Merwe and Dr Ian Roberts.
Grosjean’s escape from such an horrific crash is a superb validation of the FIA’s ‘Formula Zero’ commitment to motor sport safety. It also teaches important lessons about injury prevention methodology and commitment. Back in 1994 Sid Watkins’ Research Group was convinced of the need for an evidence-based approach that would deliver real safety improvements. This required both investment in crash investigation, the development of counter measures, and the strong determination to implement them. This is always challenging financially, intellectually, and politically.
Fortunately, with resources from the FIA Foundation and the expertise of engineers like Peter Wright and Andy Mellor at the FIA Institute, the FIA, led by the much-missed Charlie Whiting and his team, has been able to undertake research and development in new safety technologies. But applying them has not always been easy. There was noisy opposition to the halo system both before and after it was introduced. But FIA President Jean Todt robustly dismissed the criticism, supporting its mandatory adoption from 2018. There was similar resistance in 2003 to the HANS (head and neck support) device and the FIA was forced to issue a warning to all teams that if a driver is unable to wear the device “for medical or other reasons, the team concerned will have to replace him”.
Grosjean’s survival is, therefore, a powerful reminder of the FIA’s role as the sport’s regulatory authority and the importance of demonstrating leadership on safety. It is a fitting legacy to the work of Sid Watkins and Charlie Whiting. Strong advocacy also came from Alex Wurz, the President of the Grand Prix Drivers Association. All current F1 drivers owe them a debt of gratitude.
The Bahrain crash can also strengthen the FIA’s mission as a promoter of Vision Zero on both road and track. In February this year, in Stockholm, the Swedish Government hosted the 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety. In his capacity as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety, Jean Todt, played a leading role in the Conference which not surprisingly strongly endorsed Vision Zero. Then in August this year the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on road safety that mandates a new Decade of Action for Road Safety with a target to halve road deaths by 2030. For the first time the General Assembly also endorsed ‘Safe Systems’ and around the world governments are increasingly embracing a holistic strategy to make roads, vehicles, and road users safer than ever before.
To dramatically reduce the 1.3 million people killed in road crashes each year is a major challenge. It will require new investment in road infrastructure, mandating more vehicle safety technology, and tougher enforcement especially against speeding. This will require robust political will and commitment to action. There will always be those who say it can’t be done; that it’s too costly or intrusive. And there will some who just ignore road trauma even though it is largely predictable and preventable. But as the Grosjean crash, and FIA’s practical application of Vision Zero shows, it is the methodology of safe systems and not miracles that will save lives.
David Ward is the President and CEO of the Towards Zero Foundation, and previously Director General of the FIA Foundation (2001-2013)