That Utah Van Crash thing…

Here is some local coverage of the Utah State University van crash. The accident is getting a bit of national coverage right now, because apparently people are tired of looking at pictures of floods.

Significant details:

1) Nobody was wearing a seatbelt.
2) The van was probably going at least 85. The posted speed limit there is 75, and the van was passing traffic. It could easily have been going 90 or even 95, though.
3) All eleven occupants were thrown from the vehicle during its high-speed, 4x rollover. Nine of them are now dead.

If you drive in the United States, the odds are about 600:1* that you will NOT be involved in a car accident this year. If you drive or ride without your seatbelt, you are playing russian roulette with a 600-chamber revolver and a single bullet. If you wear your seatbelt, you’re still playing russian roulette, but you don’t have to point the gun at your head each time you pull the trigger.

*SOURCE: Extrapolation based on research into the number of fatal car accidents in the U.S., plus my wet finger in the air. There are between 30,000 and 40,000 car accident fatalities per year in the U.S., and more than 10 times that many accidents. If we assume that 250,000,000 Americans drive or ride in automobiles each year, each of them has one chance in about 6000 of dying in an auto accident, and one chance in about 600 of being in an accident at all.

49 thoughts on “That Utah Van Crash thing…”

  1. Just for the heck of it…

    …to twist the facts beyond logic and disregard basic common sense, abusing probability calculus, taking a wild guess at the average lifespan (say 60), we conclude that:
    – you have a 10% chance to be involved in an auto accident in your entire life
    – you have a 1% chance of dying in a car crash in your entire life

    I suppose that makes automobiles more dangerous than cigarettes… why does nobody sue car manufacturers for marketing such obvious threats to life and health ?

    1. Re: Just for the heck of it…

      Not to mention that when you run into someone with a cigarette, you might burn them, but when you run into someone with a car, you pretty much start with broken bones.

      If i had the money, I would start an anti-car manufacturer advertising campaign. Of course that’s mostly since I think the anti-cigarette ads are generally dumb and ineffective. The broken glass ice-pops one was neat though.

      Some statistics though: shows 42k deaths from traffic accidents in 2004, of which about 16k were ‘second hand motorists’ (not driving a motor vehicle during the accident)

      I can’t find numbers that agree on the number of deaths due to smoking in a year, but most of the numbers are higher than deaths from traffic accidents… however deaths due to second hand smoking per year was estimated at 3k by the EPA in a report that was later struck down.

      Based on these statistics, second hand driving is singificantly more dangeorous than second hand smoking, and driving in public places should nto be allowed.

      1. Re: Just for the heck of it…

        Automobiles are astoundingly dangerous, yes. More dangerous than firearms, even. According to the CDC, in 2004 there were 18,000 suicides by firearm and 14,000 murders. There were 1,100 fatal accidents. Even including the suicides in the figure (which isn’t quite fair, because without a firearm present, most of those people will still figure out a way to kill themselves, and yes, the statistics appear to bear this out) you have 33,100 firearm-related deaths compared to (again, 2004 CDC numbers) 43,000 automobile-related deaths.

        Now consider: firearms exist in order to kill people (and animals, yes). Cars do not. From a purely statistical standpoint cars appear to be more effective killing tools than firearms.

        1. Re: Just for the heck of it…

          I just feel obligated to chime in here, because the numbers could be slightly misleading. You’re quoting hard numbers, but wouldn’t it be more valid to say X fatal accident out of Y owners / users, for each case?

          1. Re: Just for the heck of it…

            only slightly misleading? statistics are designed to be misleading… especially since we started with cigarette statistics.

            It’s probably hard to get reliable figures on how many people own guns, since not every gun requires licensing, many people own guns that are simply for show, etc. But most car owners plan to use their car, and most of the cars on the road are licensed. Anyhow, I don’t think the CDC tracks those things.

            Your results really do get more misleading when you start comparing stats from multiple groups that don’t count in the same way. Most of the cigarette death stats consider the lifelong effects of cigarettes, where the DOT would not consider a drive by shooting, or a mail bomb to cause a motor vehicle related fatality.

          2. Re: Just for the heck of it…

            The numbers are indeed misleading. The auto-related deaths should be higher, to account for people who commit suicide by running the car in a sealed garage so that they get CO poisoning…

            Now if we did as you suggest, and do a ratio of accidents to owners, then the statistics would be REALLY misleading. Because you don’t need to own or use a car or gun to be killed by either one. Cars are flat out more dangerous than guns. If you look purely at accidents, they are VASTLY more dangerous than guns. Yet nobody ever want “car control”. People want to get to work, the mall, their friend’s house, etc. without a hassle. So we accept automobile deaths. Most gun deaths are not accidents. Take the guns away, and people will find other ways to kill one another. They always have. They always will.

          3. Re: Just for the heck of it…

            I’m not talking about which one’s more dangerous. I’m just saying that if you were to be comparing purely accidents, a ratio of owners/accidental deaths is probably a little bit better than simply a number of deaths.

            Honestly, I *know* people are a lot stupider on average with cars. Part of this being that they actually *think* of guns as something dangerous, and seem more likely to be careful with them.

    2. Re: Just for the heck of it…

      That 10% doesn’t ring anywhere near true.

      I don’t think I know anybody that hasn’t been in an auto accident sometime in their life.

  2. And if you don’t try to drive a 15 passenger van like a sports car, you can just point it at your leg when you pull the trigger. Stupid teacher.

    1. Indeed. But the first-responders at the scene, who have seen accidents like this one before, felt pretty strongly that even at those speeds, most everyone would have lived if they’d been wearing seatbelts.

      Even at 75 (the posted speed), if he’d lost that tire and lost control of the van, the teacher would probably STILL have killed most everyone not wearing seatbelts.


        1. They let a /freshman boy/ drive a 15 person van full of people? The level of stupidity involved here keeps rising and rising. Given that school hasn’t even been in a month, I find it very hard to believe that the kid had already had a chance to go through the driver training required by Weber State (and thus I extrapolate all the state schools) to be able to even drive the thing.

      1. Not arguing the point that seatbelts would have saved lives. But, I doubt that those tires were rated for speeds of 75mph. Probably not even for 65. Hence, it’s likely that the kid driving the van like his import sports car (guessing here) lead directly to its failure. So there were a number of stupid things that happened, that more then one person was responsible for, that lead to the death of idiots. Hopefully, the people that survived are smart enough to not do stupid things in the future.

      2. Seatbelt stats are extremely biased. It’s easy to look at dead people and say “they might have survived, if…”, but you don’t really know. Survivors are almost always seat belt wearers because… it’s the law! So when the officer asks, “were you wearing your seatbelt?” my answer, of course, is always “yes”. Heck, the last accident I was in, I wasn’t in any shape to be talking (I was conscious, but in a lot of pain) and the cop asked my wife and she said I was (but I wasn’t). Six car accidents in my life (including one roll-over), never a seatbelt, and only one “serious” injury (cracked ribs) to show for it. And in that particular accident, a seat belt likely would have done more harm than good. I did NOT want to be held in place, because that place became occupied by the truck door.

  3. I have to admit that I am a bad, bad person. I saw that they weren’t wearing their seatbelts and the most I could come up with was a feeling of vague disgust at their blatant idiocy.

    Why is seatbelt wearing such a foreign concept to some people? Why?

    1. Yeah,

      At my college, I think the driver training program strongly instilled a requirement for wearing seat belts. Certainly everytime I was in a similar van, the seatbelts were fastened. I’d bet that they probably discouraged speeding in general, and extreme velocities in particular.

      Some people just don’t fit into a standard seat belt properly, but it’s pretty doubtfull than all the passengers fit into that category.

      1. That’s true, some don’t, but even with our rapidly obesifying nation, most people do. Since this wasn’t the football team, I think the odds are that they all would have fit in the seatbelts. And as I seem to recall from the news story I read, it was a fifteen person van, so it wasn’t a lack of them.

    2. Why is seatbelt wearing such a foreign concept to some people? Why?

      Same reason bike helmets are?

      My church lost a member of the family just a couple months back. He was bicycling without a helmet, hit a rough patch, fell off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. No immediately-apparent injury, but two hours later he was slurring his speech and couldn’t work his fingers properly. Eighteen hours later he was dead due to massive blood clotting in the brain. And oh yeah, his seven-year-old daughter was with him when he took that tumble.

      I kept thinking about that when I was out cycling today. I saw at least four other cyclists on the road… and none of them had helmets on. And I shuddered.

      1. The bike helmet one makes even less sense to me. I think a lot of people don’t wear them because they look stupid. So…they risk their lives for fashion? I think I still see more people riding without them than with them, since I don’t mountain bike anymore, just see casual riders on the street.

        1. The usual suspects come to play:

          It messes up my hair
          It’s uncomfortable
          They all look dorky
          I can’t afford one/I am too cheap to buy one
          Where do I put it when I lock my bike up?

          The last one is the most reasonable excuse of the bunch… but if you don’t like it anyhow, locking it to the bike should be good enough. The rest of them all fall to the argument ‘so is your brain splattered on the pavement’

          When bike helmets first became legislated, I was in jr. high, and resisted for as long as possible, but now that I’m a college grad and biking to work, I put it on as I’m pushing my bike outside. Cyclists are a popular category in fatalities from second hand driving, and I’d rather not be in that table of statistcs.

          1. It’s very easy to lock them to the bike if you’ve got a chain long enough to properly chain up your bike. Plus, come on-who’s going to steal a bike helmet when most people still refuse to wear them? 🙂

            My dad has long been big into biking and we had to wear helmets long before it became legislation. And you know what? My dad, my uncle, my aunt, my former step-mom…all of them have had their lives saved by them. And one of the few times one of my brothers broke the rule, he crashed and managed to open up a just-stitched wound on his head that made the scarring far more horrific than it otherwise would have been for many years. Sure, lots of them look dorky, but they’re far better than the alternative.

          2. Public Service Announcement: One thing many people don’t know about bike helmets: a given helmet is good ONCE. Even if it doesn’t crack, and may only look scuffed, you have to throw it away if it’s taken an impact because the foam underneath may be damaged.

          3. I dislike wearing bike helmets and seatbelts for the very reason that they’re being foisted upon us by Insurance companies that have bought off legislatures. This is not how good law is made; it’s how corporations can avoid having to fulfill their contractual obligations.

          4. So… you are willing to risk your own death in order to make a (very quiet, likely unnoticed) statement about the strength of lobbyists in a representative republic?

            You’re too smart for your own good. Get that noggin of yours into a helmet, and buckle up. Maybe you’ll live long enough to think up a way to make good laws on the matter.


          5. Am I spoiled by being in a nation with laws about these things?
            Ok, sure, it’s kind of annoying, but on the other hand I always wear my seatbelt because otherwise it could be a $100 instant fine for me, and the same goes for my bicycle helmet. If a cop sees me without one, $100 instant fine.

          6. You’re starting to sound dangerously close to the “bash America” crowd. Careful, pal.

            1) New Zealand has a population of 4.4 million.
            2) Utah has a population of 2.4 million.
            3) Both states (“state” is a great, generic word, and it better describes NZ’s size in this context) have mandatory seat-belt ordinances.
            4) Utah does not require motorcycle helmets, and is very popular with the Harley=Freedom crowd. Idiots.

            My point — Here in the US, motor vehicle stuff falls mostly in the “States’ Rights” category, with the feds only mandating a few things, and those typically pertain to the interstate highways. Laws regarding seatbelts and helmets will change from state to state, as will speed limits, licensing and registration, etc. Fortunately, all states are required to recognize and honor each other’s driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

            Spoiled? Maybe, but then you live in New Zealand. I hear it’s beautiful down there. Maybe you ARE spoiled.


          7. My point — Here in the US, motor vehicle stuff falls mostly in the “States’ Rights” category, with the feds only mandating a few things,

            And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

          8. Sorry, wasn’t meaning to sound bash americaery.
            I just get culture shock reading about these kinds of things, and while I have a friend that habitually doesn’t wear a seatbelt, finding 11 people that wouldn’t wear their seatbelts seems like it would tkae a lot of work to me over here.
            I know my political compass is way left of where most american’s set theirs, but honestly, I’m quite happy with the safety regulations most of the time.

          9. First of all, it actually is the law for those of us in the state of Utah to wear seatbelts, and I believe bike helmets are, at least for minors. Clearly that doesn’t stop people from being stupid. And again, I’m probably horrible for this, but I don’t think the government should be legistlating against blatant stupidity. That’s just me, though.

          10. I don’t know, the existence in America of precedent for suing over hot coffee would seem to indicate to me that America is just as much legislate against blatant stupidity as it is here.

          11. First of all, what I said was my opinion-I don’t think we should legislate against stupidity. Second of all, your counter was nothing of the sort. Someone suing over an injury actually isn’t an example of legislating. Legislating is the act of making a law against something by a body elected to do that sort of thing. A jury of twelve and a judge are not a legislative body.

            Actually, I read some details about the case recently, and the lady did have some good points, which is why she got awarded some money. She also had screwed up, though, which is why she didn’t get nearly as much as she asked for.

        2. The most common reason I hear from reasonable motorcyclists is, it impairs their hearing and peripheral vision, thus increasing their liklihood of being INVOLVED in an accident. They’d rather avoid one than survive one, you see.

          1. I was actually thinking of the kind of bikes you pedal, but I think this “reason” is a crock, because if a motocyclist gets in an accident without a helmet? It’s going to go much, much worse for him or her and there’s not a small chance it will kill them. I have a step-cousin who was in a wreck without a helmet five years ago. He had almost no external injuries, and was quite coherent talking to the doctors for a few hours. Then the bleeding in his skull, which they hadn’t known about I think, caused too much pressure on his brain, he went into a coma, and now, in his early thirties, his mind is intact but he’s probably going to be in a nursing home for the rest of his life because of his physical disabilities.

          2. For every coin there are two sides. My mother worked in the ER for many years, and would tell me stories of the motorcycle accidents she saw come through (she didn’t really want me riding one ever). She said that the main reason they liked helmets in ER was that it made the bodies much easier to identify…

          3. That actually doesn’t surprise me. Generally speaking, if something considerably smaller gets in a “fight” with a vehicle that masses a ton or more…the small thing is going to lose, and lose badly. It seems to me, though, that a helmet is going to increase your chance of living as more than a vegetable, since it protects arguably the most important organ of all-the brain. Though I guess if you are a vegetable, you personally won’t care.

          4. Ok, as a motorcyclist, I’m going to chime in here: If you’re hit by a car while riding? The helmet probably won’t do you alot of good. Ditto you hit a tree, cliff, whathave you (ok, aside: I tried four ways to punctuate that. How does it get done?) But, if you high side a crown, and drop the bike, and semi recover from it enough that you’re sliding on your back? The helmet is gonna keep your head in one piece. They’re not magic keep you alive tools, but they might be the difference between dead and alive. And, I like my pretty face pretty. 🙂

          5. Err, I forgot to say in my other post-the doctors were certain that if he’d been wearing a helmet, he would have been much better off and might very well escaped from the accident with no injuries worth speaking of.

          6. And, this is kind of a crock. I wear a full faced helmet. The visor starts *well* back from where my peripheral vision starts, and I can hear pretty much just as well through it as without one on. Also, chances are that anything you can hear is gonna be *way* too late for you to do anything about.

      2. When I lived in Provo, the guy across the street was up on all the accident statistics. Anyone mowing their lawn had to wear safety goggles. According to him, most bicycle injuries are just as you describe them: falling from the height of the bike is enough to seriously injure or kill.

        There’s a Scientific American article (Stewart, Ian. 1995. The anthropomurphic principle. Scientific American (December):104-106.) reviewing a paper by Robert Matthewes on the physics of toast landing butter-side-down. First he assumed that most toast was bumped sideways off of a table, and that the spin of the toast happened as the leading edge was no longer supported against gravity. He calculated the height from which such a piece of toast would need to fall to make a full 360 degree turn; assuming earth gravity, he got 10 feet.

        I haven’t checked it, but I think that the acceleration of gravity is irrelevant, since the toast will rotate faster in higher gravity but fall more quickly to the floor, while in lower gravity, it will turn slowly, but also has plenty of time to make the half-turn.

        He then wondered if there could exist vaguely-humanoid aliens elsewhere in the universe immune from Murphy’s principle.

        “To find out, Matthews models an alien as a cylinder of polymer topped with a headlike sphere. I will call such an organism a polymurph. Death occurs if the chemical bonds in a polymer layer shear. Matthews determines that the height of a viable polymurph is at most
        (3nq/f )^(1/2) r^2 A^(-1/6) (a/a_G)^(1/4) a_0.
        In this equation, n is the number of atoms in a plane across which any breakage takes place (typically about 100); q equals 3.10^(-3), a constant related to polymers; f is the fraction of kinetic energy that goes into breaking the polymer bonds; r is the radius of polymeric atoms in units of the Bohr radius; A is the atomic mass of polymer material; a equals the electronic fine structure constant e^2/(2 h eps_0 c), where e is the charge on the electron, h is Planck’s constant, eps_0 is the permittivity of free space, and c is the speed of light; a_G is the gravitational fine structure constant 2 pi G m_p^2/hc, where G is the gravitational constant,
        and m_p is the mass of the proton; and a_0 is the Bohr radius.

        “Plugging in the relevant values for [earth], we find that the maximum safe height for a polymurph is nine feet and eight inches. (The tallest recorded human being, by the way, is a certain Robert Wadlow, who measured eight feet and 11 inches tall.) This is far short of the 20 feet needed to avoid buttering the kitchen floor.”

        Anyway, this estimate of nine feet is to crack a skull open, which, as you illustrate, isn’t necessary to kill someone. Being up high on a bike and having your limbs occupied doing things other than break your fall is bad news for your head. Put it in a helmet!

  4. In 17 years as a volunteer EMT/paramedic, I had to unbuckle exactly two seat belts to treat patients. One guy certainly would have dies without it. The other was a lady too scared after her accident to do anything on her own – but she was almost completely uninjured.

    It’s the same thing as motorcycle helmets, and bicycle helmets, and safe sex: There’s simply no excuse not to. The risks of not taking the precaution are too great, and the precaution is really no big deal.

    For those of you who refuse to do those things because the government says you should do so: Go right ahead. To quote Larry Niven, I “think of it as evolution in action”.

  5. The one bad auto crash I had, I was wearing my seat-belt. (I always wear my seat belt and so does anyone riding with me)

    Fortunately for me it broke (or my guardian angel broke it!) because if it hadn’t, I’d be dead now instead of surviving with only minor damage. The driver’s seat was completely crushed and I was thrown into the passenger’s seat which did not get much damaged.

    But, as usual, what happens to me is almost exactly backwards to what happens to everyone else… so I still insist on seat belt usage in my car.

  6. From the linked article:

    “There’s no question they wouldn’t have been hurt in that van if they would have had seat belts on,” Nelson said. “I have no doubt that there would have been more survivors.”

    To my reading that says that Nelson claims if they had seat belts on they would have escaped unharmed. I suspect it’s much more likely the intended meaning is “if they had seat belts on they would have been hurt, but not dead (or at least fewer dead)”.

    So is my reading incorrect, or is it just badly worded?

    1. Nelson probably said a dozen more things to the reporter, and this was grabbed as the sound-bite. We don’t have his full text, but we do have his (at times self-contradictory) opinion.

      It sounds to me like he overstated his opinion at first. With the crushing of the roof, there would have certainly been one or more seat-belt fatalities, unless everyone had the presence of mind to assume crash position and get their heads down. That said, with nobody ejected from the van, there would certainly have been many more survivors.


  7. When I was 19, I rolled a Nova down I-90, both barrel roll and en-to-end (doing around 90MPH). As near as I can tell, had a blow out on front driver’s side tire (smooth and level driving then wheel jerked out of hands to left). I and three of the women in the back were all wearing our seat belts. We all walked away, though one girl had a broken arm. The fourth girl, in the front passenger seat wasn’t wearing her seat belt and got thrown from the car. She was lucky, she lived. She has been in a wheelchair ever since (heard recently that she is married and had a daughter last year-life goes on!). If you’ve ever seen a lego model get thrown across the floor, you’ll have an idea of what the crash scene looked like. There was a trail of debris for hundreds of yards, leading up to the car, which had fallen over a small cliff, before stopping.

    Seat belts work. And people shouldn’t be worried about being trapped in a car, either. The roof of the Nova was crushed down almost to the bottom of the windows but was tented up over the front bucket seats. We were all sideways in there but were all breathing and able to get out through front and back windows.

    Since then, I became an EMT, in the Air Force (was mechanic at the time) and have responded to too many accidents where people didn’t wear seat belts. About the worse was the passenger that wasn’t wearing one, in a multi-car pile up. He kissed the windshield, leaving a neat impression of his face in it (windshield bubbled out in half head shape), as well as most of the skin from his face. Trying to staunch the bleeding when there’s no skin sucks.

  8. And then there’s the “but they make me look silly” or less cool or some such argument. Even if it were true, silly beats both vegetative. Uncool beats dead.

  9. I’ve had three accidents this year. Two were metal munchers but this last Saturday a motorcycle clipped the rear of my car and two people were injured. No helmet no good clothing nothing. They went to the hospital and I went home.

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