Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The End of the Low Hanging Fruit

Note:  There's no easy answers here.  Just some thoughts on how difficult the question is.

In the aftermath surrounding the loss of Justin Wilson there’s been a renewal of commentary about the “Lack of Safety” or an indifference towards danger by the powers that be at IndyCar specifically and all of open wheel racing in general.  I think an honest open debate concerning safety is needed and should be constantly ongoing.  But with this debate have come analogies to past safety decisions where the trade offs and costs of past implementation are not commensurate with those that confront open wheel racing today.  Current dialogue that presents these decisions as equally straightforward is misleading.

Before I expand on this specifically, let me discuss a concept that will frame the discussion.  One of the things I do with my time these days is teach Economics at a local university.  First lecture of the year today and I brushed on a topics that become recurrent in a course on Micro Economics.  There is oppotunity cost to every decision and all goods eventually experience increasing marginal cost of production.  It is important to note that when an economist talks about cost they ARE NOT talking about money.  The opportunity cost of an item is measured by what was given up to make the decision that was made.  Money only facilitates the trade off.  At some point producing the next unit of something is more expensive that producing the previous unit of it, eventually all products experience increasing marginal costs.   In this case the product we are considering is Safety and its associated nonmonetary costs.

Returning to racing, back in 2000…in relatively quick succession Nascar drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and eventually Dale Earnhardt were killed during head on impacts that resulted in basilar skull fractures.  In racing, a basilar skull fracture is essentially an internal decapitation that occurs when the body rapidly decelerates and the driver’s head and helmet maintain their forward momentum resulting in the fracture of the skull at its base.  Nascar responded by instituting that belts be worn tighter while in the car, drivers were to wear full face helmets, all drivers would adopt the Hans device (which essentially tethers the helmet to an apparatus secured to the drivers torso) and ultimately requiring all tracks to install Safer barriers (which was, in part, pioneered by Indycar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway).  These were all needed and welcomed improvements. 

The cost/tradeoff to implement these changes were cheap and negligible – these were easy decisions that should have been made previous to their actual implementation.  The cost or trade off for tightening the belts was some comfort in the seat.  The cost of the full face helmet was a cig or two during the yellow laps.  The trade off for the Hans device was again comfort mixed with some macho pride.  In the end, the trade off for mandating the Safer barrier was only money - nothing more.

Over the years, IndyCar has also made its share of low cost trade off safety improvements.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s driver after driver was injured with mangled feet from the protrusion of chassis parts in and around the feet and knees (Rick Mears and AJ Foyt come immediately to mind though there were others).  The response was to redesign the cars, moving suspension pieces so that they attached to the tub in front of the drivers feet, not mid calf.  The frequency of these injuries has decreased as a result.  After the death of Greg Moore, IndyCar also uniformly adopted the Hans device.  After a litany of broken vertebrae injuries suffered in the tub of the IR3, the DW12 tub was expanded to increase the amount of foam padding separating the driver from the tub and to date has recorded only one such injury.

Many are now calling for the required implementation of canopies for IndyCar and ultimately all of open wheel racing.  Let me be clear on something – I don’t know anyone who disputes that an effective closed canopy system would not have changed the outcome for not only Justin, but likely the losses of Jules Bianchi and Henry Surtees while also preventing James Hinchliffe’s accident at the GPI a year ago. 

What is different this time is that the implementation of Canopies does not come with a minimal trade off of cost and I do not mean cost in monetary terms.  Most the low hanging fruit in racing safety has been claimed, we are now to the point where trading up on safety does not come at the expense of something as meaningless as comfort, pride, money or tradition.  Implementing a canopy system is now a trade off where one risk is mitigated at the cost tradeoff of another risk increasing.  TheFIA has looked into the concept of canopies on open wheel cars and has found itto be problematic - Increasing the risk to fans from projected debris and increasing the difficulty in extracting drivers from cars.  There is no consensus that the mitigated risk is larger than the expanded risk.

Whenever I hear canopies, I have trouble not thinking of Simona’s fire at Texas a few years ago.  You know the video – you can youtube it if you want.  But as you do, remember this, the head rest was never successfully removed from the vehicle.  It doesn’t take much to imagine the outcome if the headrest had instead been a complete canopy system.  It might be argued that better engineering would solve the issue, but a year later at Indianapolis, Simona was on fire again and this time upside down.  Better engineering would not have resulted in removing the canopy quickly from a car in that situation.  Not to overdue the point, but imagine if there had been a malfunctioning canopy release in the James Hinchcliffe accident at the speedway this year, preventing medics from stemming the loss of blood he was experiencing at the time.

I honestly do not know which is a bigger risk – being hit in the head with debris or being trapped inside a canopied car.  Drivers - who likely have different risk aversions - will to weigh the dangers for themselves – we should not be surprised if some choose to live with one risk over another and others have a different preference.
Others with deep research budgets and technical expertise such as the FIA need to determine the greater risk and make an industry wide recommendation.  Resources, experiences and data from all forms of Open Wheel racing - IndyCar, Formula Nippon and the various development series worldwide should be used in collaboration with the FIA's efforts.   

One of the more angry diatribes of the current debate roughly goes “When nascar had drivers die 15 years ago, they didn’t stand by and do nothing they fixed it, IndyCar is at fault for not doing the same.”  I resent this representation of the current choices at hand.  At the time Nascar was picking low hanging fruit – Open wheel racing is now comparing relative risk profiles of two types of catastrophic events both of which have non zero probabilities of occurrence.  The implications of a risk weighing decision will have long term implications – even if not all of them can be immediately foreseen. 

Open wheel racing has made a trade off in risks before and in one instance it has led to where we are today. 

It used to be when cars crashed, the cars did not damage anywhere as severely as they do now.  Cars would hit the wall and not look any worse for it – they were built like tanks, built of steel, Aluminum and Chrome.  When the crashed, they held together.  But what would go on in those accidents, the energy of the accumulated G forces from the crash was transferred through the stiff car and completely to the driver often injuring them severely. 

In the eighties engineers had the epiphany that if the cars were made of modern fibre composites and designed to “Crumple” on impact around a solid monocoque that cocooned the driver, much of the force of impact could be shed by the car and the driver shielded from it.  What we know now is that the flying parts from the “crumpling” cars shedding pieces have became dangerous projectiles for drivers in cars following such accidents and for fans sitting in the stands.  We don’t know how many driver lives have been saved or injuries prevented by the decision to have cars crumple but we know the cost of that design trade off was paid on Sunday in Pocono.  Keeping one driver safe during his impact, led to the endangerment of another. 
These are the tradeoffs on the horizon of safety improvements in the days, weeks and months ahead.  Comparisons to the obvious decisions of a distant past are not useful.

(BTW - perhaps part of the fix is not a closed canopy at all – perhaps it is returning to cars that do not shred on impact.  Cars where the chassis shreds and crumples less but is separated from a tethered monocoque by a layer of impact foam - similar to that which protects the driver and his spine from impact with the monocoque.  The outer layer of foam dissipates the impact from chassis to monocoque, the inner layer of foam dissipates the impact of monocoque to driver.)

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