Investigations in the name of safety.
Around 50 years ago, the starting shot was fired for a project which was rare in the industry: Mercedes-Benz accident research. Since 2018, Julia Hinners has specialised in taking a close look at accidents involving Mercedes-Benz vans. The engineer provides us with some exciting insights into her work.
Ms Hinners, what exactly does Daimler's van accident research department do?
Our main task is to examine vehicles of our current model series that have been involved in real accidents. We want to find out what accidents happen with them, how our vehicles react and what we can improve on them. From the recorded accident data and also from various other data sources, we compile accident statistics which our colleagues in van development use, for example, to adapt driver assistance systems or passive restraint systems to real accidents.
Please take us through a typical working day!
I would distinguish between two types of typical work day. On a normal office day, my first glance is at news sites reporting accidents. I obtain a quick picture in the morning of what accidents have happened since yesterday or over the weekend. Then I have my daily Skype conference with colleagues. As part of this, we discuss what accidents we might investigate. When accident investigations are on the cards, we have to be prepared and organised. I call the police, recovery services, fleet managers or the drivers involved in the accidents. A typical accident investigation day, on the other hand, begins very early in the morning with a drive to the location where crashed vehicle is being kept. We need about four hours for a vehicle inspection. And if possible, the scene of the accident is also inspected; traces left during the accident will be measured and, if available, the opposing vehicle will be inspected and documented.
You say you carry out vehicle inspections – how exactly do you proceed?
First, I try to get an overview of the deformations that are present. What mechanisms have caused them? What does the interior look like? We record basic vehicle data such as tyre pressure, tread depth, tank fill level and mileage, then we measure the deformations and examine the restraint systems. If necessary, we can read out and analyse crash data. We then take extensive photographs of the damage to the vehicle. We gather a whole lot of information that we will then subsequently seek to interpret. A simulation program helps us in reconstructing the course of the accident and then analyses the collision.
Analysis of all safety components.
Engineer Julia Hinners examines the airbag of a crashed vehicle.
In terms of vehicle registrations and accident figures: do vans cause more accidents than passenger cars?
No, vans tend to be involved in fewer accidents with personal injury than passenger cars – especially if you take into account the fact that the average annual mileage per vehicle is higher among vans than for passenger cars. However, the van segment has a higher average accident severity. This is mainly due to the field of application of these vehicles. A large percentage of the accidents I investigate occur out of town at corresponding speeds.
Where is there still potential for optimisation in the field of driving safety?
Currently, and in the future, accident prevention remains the top priority. Many accidents can already be prevented using currently available safety systems, such as the emergency braking assistant. Vehicles need to be equipped with assistance systems that avoid or mitigate more and more accident scenarios. Other road users, such as pedestrians or cyclists, who can be protected by such systems, then also come into focus. In the short term, I also see potential for improvement in the safety awareness of drivers and passengers. Even in a modern vehicle with great equipment, you have to wear your seatbelt – that should never be in doubt. Without a seat belt, even the safest car is of no use to anyone – and that also applies to securing loads in vehicles.
Detective work at the crash site.
Julia Hinners and colleague Gert Lupprian inspect the scene of an accident.
Accident researcher Julia Hinners doesn't miss a thing.
Every relevant component, no matter how hidden it may be, is meticulously checked.
You deal with accidents all the time and are often on the scene yourself. How safe do you feel on the road?
I've been involved in accident research since 2013, which I'm sure has had an impact on my behaviour on the road. I believe that I am good at recognising typical accident situations and am constantly aware of potential hazards. It also led me to give up my hobby of motorcycling after four years on the job. I feel pretty safe on the road in my car, but I've also learned to use a number of habits. For example, I never stay in the inside lane at the tail end of a traffic jam, but move over into the outside lane to avoid the risk of rear-end collisions from trucks. Furthermore, it's important for me that I drive a modern vehicle with good safety equipment.
What do you particularly like about your job?
I like the direct customer contact that comes with questioning the accident victims about how the accident happened, their behaviour and reactions during the accident. I also have a lot of direct contact with our diverse range of products and their associated areas of application. Discussions with different groups of professionals working on the scene of road traffic accidents are also exciting. But what I like most is that I can make the streets a little safer with my work.
Last but not least, do you have a message for our readers?
Yes – fasten your seatbelts! And always secure any loads you're carrying! It can have a massive influence on the dynamic handling of the vehicle. Also: assistance systems – especially emergency braking assistance systems – can save lives.
Vito Mixto with detective case.
The experts travel to their missions in a Mercedes-Benz Vito Mixto complete with special equipment.
Julia Hinners recording electronic vehicle data.