Once upon a time, motor racing was one of the most dangerous activities you could voluntarily participate in. If you were a racing driver between about 1950 and 1970, you stood a pretty good chance of dying in an accident. Case in point – out of the 43 drivers that participated in the 1969 Formula 1 World Championship, 10 (yes, 10!) would die in accidents before the end of the season.
In an accident, you would have likely been killed after suffering, say, blunt-force trauma, a skull fracture, broken neck or burns from fire. Racing cars during this era were designed to be as strong as possible. However, the safety of its driver was not highly considered in the design. The extreme forces that are imparted during a high-speed accident could not be absorbed by the car, meaning that the driver was subjected to them. And, with the lack of safety equipment in these cars, drivers were being severely injured or killed at alarming rates.
Today, racing cars are designed to intentionally disintegrate when involved in an accident. This disintegration allows energy from the accident to be dissipated. Meanwhile, the driver is protected by a survival cell, be it a full roll cage or carbon fibre “tub” that is prevalent in single-seaters. The driver also has much more advanced and effective safety equipment at his or her disposal. With this progress, a racing driver has a high probability of walking away from an accident that would have been fatal in previous decades.
One specific type of device that I outline here probably has made a bigger impact to racing safety than anything else before it, active or passive – devices which protect the head and neck from injury.
In a racing car, your upper body is strapped tightly to the seat with a 5 or 6-point harness. However, with few exceptions, most drivers in the 20th century did not adequately protect their head and neck. In accidents where the rate of deceleration is abrupt, the head whips forward. This force are magnified even more due to the driver’s helmet increasing the weight of the head. Meanwhile, the rest of the body is restrained by the safety harness. The neck muscles, even in the strongest athletes, aren’t designed to absorb the forces that sudden deceleration can impart in a high-speed accident. Cervical injuries, skull fractures or death were highly likely to occur as a result.
The basilar skull fracture would become well-known as a nearly 100% guaranteed cause of death in a racing accident in the 1990s and early 2000s. With the sudden forward motion of the unrestrained head and neck, blood supply to the brain would be cut along with fractures to the base of the skull occurring. With very, very few exceptions (Ernie Irvan in a Michigan NASCAR race in 1994 and Stan Smith in a NASCAR race in 1993), it was curtains you suffered this type of injury.
Here’s an example of a driver killed by a basilar skull fracture. This video was taken from the 1994 Formula 1 San Marino Grand Prix in Italy. This race is well known for the death of Ayrton Senna on May 1st, but the previous day, Roland Ratzenberger of Austria was killed during a practice session. His front wing became lodged under the front wheels of his car, sending him off track at almost 190mph, head-on into a concrete wall. It is very clear that he suffered severe injuries and was killed on impact with the wall (WARNING: POTENTIALLY GRAPHIC VIDEO).
Later, NASCAR drivers Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt would be killed by the same injury. The death of Earnhardt, especially, started the movement for the use of head and neck restraints in racing cars.
Today’s head and neck restraint devices work in a simple manner. The device is attached to the helmet with tethers, then secured to the body of the driver, most likely with the shoulder straps of the car’s safety harnesses. When involved in an accident, instead of the head and neck whipping forward uncontrollably, the device limits this movement. More importantly, the head is kept in line with the neck, which reduces the chance of a skull fracture or neck injury, while not restricting its movement as the car decelerates. As a result, the majority of energy that would have been absorbed by the driver’s neck muscles is transferred to the device itself and the rest of the body.
The most well-known head and neck restraint among racing drivers, both professional and amateur, is the HANS device. Either made of molded polymers or carbon fibre, I’m fairly certain in stating that it has saved the lives of many a racing driver when put to use.
This first video illustrates a crash test dummy hitting a “wall” at only 42mph. If the movement of the dummy’s head and neck is that extreme at such a “slow” speed, it can only be worse at the triple-digit speeds racing accidents can occur at:
This next video illustrates the same crash test dummy hitting the “wall” also at 42mph, but now using a HANS. The lack of movement of the head and neck compared to above is eye-opening:
A third example of the effectiveness comes from a Rally event in Europe. The co-driver in this car is wearing a HANS, while the driver, inexplicably, isn’t. The forces even in this “low-speed” crash into a ditch are shocking.
Other head and neck restraints besides the HANS are available from from companies like Simpson Racing Products and NecksGen, and offer similar protection.
Like wearing a helmet, fire suit, gloves and shoes, I could never imagine myself getting into a racing car without using a neck restraint. While somewhat uncomfortable initially, it becomes second nature to use. For something relatively “simple” compared to other safety equipment for the driver and car, a neck restraint has the greatest potential benefit; put succinctly, it can save your life.
However, we must realize that racing, even with advances in car design and driver protection, will never be 100% safe. It’s, I guess, part of the reason why some folks, including myself, are drawn to it. Injuries can still occur even when a driver is protected by the best equipment available. Racing drivers, teams and tracks must continue to be vigilant on safety and make the necessary improvements wherever required to ensure the well-being of drivers when going for the win.