A Question of Safety, Not Just for Professionals

Updated: 23 August 2014 11:27 IST

In May 2011, International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Jean Todt started Action for Road Safety, a global campaign to help the FIA member organizations educate and advocate for safer roads, vehicles and behavior. The program has received the support of world organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the Red Cross.

A Question of Safety, Not Just for Professionals
File photo: The car of Mercedes-AMG's British driver Lewis Hamilton is removed from the race track after Hamilton crashed into a wall during the qualifying session ahead of the German Formula One Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring racing circuit in Hockenheim, southern Germany, on July 19, 2014. © AFP

When asked recently what the fastest racing car drivers in the world have over the rest of us in highway safety skills, several Formula One drivers responded that they try to avoid accidents by looking farther up the road than the average driver, giving themselves more time to react to danger.

Had a truck driver on a highway in Austria between Germany and Hungary followed that advice in July, he might not have rammed into a car parked on the soft shoulder with a flat tire, sending it airborne, destroying it and nearly hitting the two men who had stood behind it seconds before.

In a strange twist of fate, the men by the side of the road happened to be officials from the International Automobile Federation, known as FIA, the governing body of motor sports and also the umbrella organization for the world's national road car associations, who were traveling between two F1 races. The trunk of their rental car was full of pamphlets proclaiming the 10 Golden Rules of the FIA's Action for Road Safety program.

Thanks to the quick reflexes of one of the men, both will be able to attend the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend.

Standing behind the rental car, he saw that the truck was speeding toward them, and thought that maybe the driver did not see them. He grabbed the other man and dived off the road moments before the truck ran into the car. Neither was injured. The front of the truck was destroyed, but its driver was also uninjured.

In racing circles, the crash was about as close to home as it could get for those most aware of the need for safety education programs for the driving public. Jean Todt, the president of the FIA, compares the problems caused by poor driving to disease epidemics.

"While it is true that in what we call the developed countries, like France, England or Germany, we see sensational results," said Todt in an interview. "In the developing countries where there is no education, no law enforcement or no development of the roads and fewer modern cars, every year the figures go up."

The FIA reports that each year 1.3 million people lose their lives and 50 million others are seriously injured in road accidents and that by 2020 traffic accidents will claim 2 million lives each year across the globe.

In May 2011, Todt started Action for Road Safety, a global campaign to help the FIA member organizations educate and advocate for safer roads, vehicles and behavior. The program has received the support of world organizations including the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization and the Red Cross.

The 10 Golden Rules for Safer Motoring are a key part of the awareness and education campaign. Some of them are self-evident - like the recommendations to wear a safety belt or, when riding a motorcycle or scooter, to wear a helmet, and to follow the rules of the road. But others echo the kind of precautions that keep racing drivers safe under much harsher conditions than typical drivers face.

"Pay Attention" is one of them. Looking a bit farther up the road gives a driver a few extra seconds to anticipate and react to danger. "Check my tires" may seem simple, but how often does one actually do it? On the track, it's at every pit stop.

The FIA has long used racing to help develop highway safety.

After the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, Italy, in 1994, the FIA began a safety campaign for racing unlike anything that had been done before, which has led to a record of 20 years with no driver deaths at Grands Prix.

Among other things, it resulted in the development of a crash test program for the racing cars that was transformed into a test program for road car manufacturers, which has led to car manufacturers raising safety standards on their road cars and subsequently saved thousands of lives, the FIA said.

But according to the FIA, drivers and team owners, there are many ways in which a sport that is inherently dangerous - and in which accidents are treated as part of the show - contributes to greater safety on the road.

Most racing drivers are more aware of road dangers than the average driver, and they say racing helps them drive more safely on the highway.

"I definitely don't feel like I'm more crazy; you're a bit more switched on," said Daniel Ricciardo, an F1 driver for the Red Bull team. "Go-karting is a fairly expensive sport for a young kid to do, but even I would encourage kids to just do a few rental kart days, just to understand the basics, and it teaches you as well to look ahead. When you race a car you always look ahead to the next corner, and I think that helps a lot; instead of watching 5 meters in front of you, you are looking ahead and can anticipate an accident."

David Coulthard, a former F1 driver and now a racing commentator on British television who takes part in a Scottish road safety program, pointed out the importance of concentration.

"In Formula One we keep our eyes on the road, we are not texting or tuning into the radio," he said. "So many incidents and accidents are just purely linked to lack of concentration. People get so comfortable cruising along in their air-conditioned cockpits, and it is not a hostile environment.

"A Formula One environment is hostile and therefore it keeps you focused very much on what you are doing. I think you will not find many Formula One drivers who systematically do silly things on the road and take big risks - I see it on a daily basis, scooters and cars taking unacceptably high risks."

Bruno Senna, a nephew of Ayrton Senna and a former F1 driver who lost his father in a motorcycle accident, pointed out several examples of technology being transferred to road cars from racing cars - like carbon fiber being used to build a stronger chassis, and how the data from racing car crashes is used to learn about the physics of car crashes.

"I think it is always going to be a debate as to whether watching people drive fast on television gives off a good example," Senna said. "But in the end, we are driving fast to our own skill levels, and when we make mistakes people can see very clearly what the consequences are. And I think that people who like it do more driving and become better drivers. People who don't care about driving are more dangerous than people who actually like driving, I think."

Monisha Kaltenborn, the director and part owner of the Sauber team, said that teams sometimes invited their sponsors to take part in FIA road safety events, when it is relevant to their campaigns, as it was with one of Sauber's former South American sponsors.

Alexander Wurz, a former F1 driver who now races in sports cars and advises the FIA in several areas, also runs a safe driving program that he and his father - a former rallycross racer - developed over the past three decades into one of the biggest in the world.

In Austria, young drivers are required to take what is called a multiphase driver's license, with a visit to a driving school once the regular license exam has been passed. The program has reduced accidents by 34 percent among single male drivers and it has trained more than 8 million drivers, Wurz said.

"It shouldn't be that you get your driver's license at 18 and then have no more training and you are released with the most deadly weapon we have," Wurz said.

He said that some of the teachers are racing drivers and that this has had the added effect of gaining the confidence of the participants, who assume that racers are experts.

"The system works," he said, "and reduces fatalities because the driver goes away and says, 'Hang on a minute, out of five times that my car started skidding, I managed to control it once. So that means four times I would have been dead. So if I just reduce my speed by 5 kph in dangerous situations I am a safer driver."'

Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 promoter, has gotten into the safety spirit by putting up large signs at races that say: "Think before you drive."

© 2014 New York Times News Service

Topics : Formula 1 FIA
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