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Speed’s Not Always A Factor: Why Not All Crashes At The Nürburgring Are Serious

Well, happy New Year to all you readers out there!  I hope you’ve had a good break away from work and didn’t have any close encounters on the road.  It’s a shame that they always spoil holidays by announcing the road toll for the season in just about every news snippet.  Guess it’s horrible for the relatives of those involved in the crashes but the rest of us don’t really need to be reminded continually.

They’re fond of telling us that speed was a factor in those crashes.  However, thanks to something that I spent time watching with the family online during quiet bits of the holiday period, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just speed per se that causes serious injuries and the like. OK, it is a factor and most of us who did high school physics remember that the forces involved in something travelling at 30 km/h are lower than the forces involved in something travelling at 100 km/h.  But there must be other things at play.

What we were watching that told this story was a collection of crash videos from the Nürburgring. This one, for example:

Watching these, you’d think that all the drivers in every single crash would be hurt badly. Knocked out at the very least in some cases (e.g. the little black hatchback in #6 – possibly he/she was). However, at least according to the blurb accompanying the video, nobody was seriously injured, with the worst one being a broken wrist.  OK, yes there are deaths and serious injuries at the Nürburgring (these aren’t shown – apparently, the ethics of Nürburgring filmers prohibit posting any crashes that result in death or serious injury). However, all these crashes (and near crashes) happened at reasonably high speeds and didn’t automatically result in horror.  Unless you consider the resulting financial and insurance issues to be horror (like the crash involving the Koenigsegg – a car that costs more than my house and the neighbours’ houses put together).

So why aren’t the crashes at the Nürburgring creating as much carnage as all the road safety ads would have us believe?  Discussion with my fellow-watchers and a few moments of reflection suggest the following reasons why:

  1. Cars are built better these days. They have crumple zones to cushion heavy blows, tough impact protection systems and lots of airbags and seatbelts to protect the driver (I doubt anybody goes around the Nürburgring with kiddies in the back seat, so back seat protection probably isn’t a factor).
  2. Crash barriers are built better these days. Given this sort of footage, the Nürburgring (and similar tracks) go through quite a bit of crash barrier. This means that they have the chance to update to the newest, safest designs, which also involve impact absorption.  Your local council doesn’t have the same turnover rate as the Ring and probably has the same barriers that they put up in the 1980s or even earlier thanks to budget reasons.  These barriers tend to be a bit less forgiving.
  3. There are no (or very few) head-on crashes at the Nürburgring. It’s head-ons that are the real nasties.  At the Ring, everyone’s going in the same direction (at least most of the time).  On the road, though, there is that other lane with people coming the other way.

  4. The Nürburgring has a singular lack of street furniture at tricky corners. Instead, they have nice wide grass berms, rather than lamp posts, parked trucks, planters made of brick or concrete walls. This means that if you do take that corner a little too fast for your car, the conditions and the camber, sending you spinning out beyond what your stability package can handle, there’s nothing for you to collect on the way.  What’s more, the camber of the track is at the perfect angle for a high speed around that particular corner.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of our local roads all of the time – there was one particular corner on a road near where I lived when I was a teenager learning to drive that had negative camber (i.e. it sloped the wrong way for the direction of the turn). Were there heaps of crashes at that corner?  You betcha.  Have they fixed the problem even after 20+ years?  Well, they hadn’t last time I went back there.
  5. The drivers aren’t distracted. This means that crashes involving more than one vehicle aren’t as frequent.  People at the Nürburgring are there to do one thing: drive.  They aren’t eating, trying to console a wailing kid in the back seat or texting.  At least I hope they’re not texting, though they may be trying to film their lap on their phone.

The video also awoke a sneaky little desire to actually drive the Nürburgring.  Not to set or equal any record lap times or anything like that but to say that I did it and survived.  I doubt that I ever will – economics and the worry that some idiot would take me out dictate that, so I’ll be sticking to the simulators (a.k.a. motor racing computer games).  However, if you’ve ever been lucky enough to have driven the Nürburgring, please share your story with us!