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Since 1972, NCSA's Special Crash Investigations (SCI) Program has provided NHTSA with the most in- depth and detailed level of crash investigation data collected by the agency. The data collected ranges from basic data contained in routine police and insurance crash reports to comprehensive data from special reports by professional crash investigation teams. Hundreds of data elements relevant to the vehicle, occupants, injury mechanisms, roadway, and safety systems are collected for each of the over 100 crashes designated for study annually.

SCI cases are intended to be an anecdotal data set useful for examining special crash circumstances or outcomes from an engineering perspective. The benefit of the program is its ability to locate unique real-world crashes anywhere in the country and perform in-depth clinical investigations in a timely manner that can be used by the automotive safety community to improve the performance of its advanced safety systems. Past cases have triggered interest from individual companies and the industry as a whole to improve the safety performance of motor vehicles, notably passenger cars, light trucks, and school buses.

Case Selection

Cases of interest are derived from an extensive and diverse network of sources, including NHTSA's Auto Safety Hotline, the Department of Transportation's National Response Center, NHTSA's regional offices the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), automotive manufacturers, other government agencies, law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, vehicle owners, engineers, and medical personnel.

Case selection is based on the current and evolving needs of the agency. The program's flexibility allows for detailed investigations of emerging technologies, including the performance of alternative fueled vehicles, child restraint systems, adaptive controls, safety belts, vehicle-pedestrian interactions, and potential safety defects. Resources have also been concentrated on crashes involving automatic restraints (air bags and safety belts), and school buses.

Data Collection

Professional crash investigators locate involved vehicles, photograph and measure them, and interior occupant contacts are identified.

Data collection consists of three main parts: the scene inspection, the vehicle inspection(s), and the interview(s) of the crash victims. The scene investigation involves the collection of data such as skid/yaw marks and other relevant data in attempt to document the point of impact, the crash dynamics and the final rest positions of the vehicles in the crash. The vehicle(s) is/are inspected and an analysis is made of the crash dynamics, damage, occupant kinematics, and the safety systems. A complete set of images is taken of the scene and each vehicle. The data from the scene and vehicle are augmented by interviews of the crash victims and any other surrogates or witnesses. The investigations are further augmented by official records such as the police report which provides details on the crash and medical records which provide the level of injuries sustained.

All data collected is confidential. The research teams are interested only in information that will help them understand the nature and consequences of the crashes. Personal identifiable information about the facts of the crash and involved parties are not included in any public SCI file. Each investigation provides extensive information about pre-crash, crash, and post-crash events of the occupants, vehicles, and environmental factors that may have contributed to the event's occurrence or severity. Detailed documentation of the safety features (particularly those related to any of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) is provided.

The participation and cooperation of automotive manufacturers, suppliers, law enforcement agencies, hospitals, physicians, medical examiners, coroners, insurance companies, tow and salvage yard operators, and the individuals involved in crashes are essential to the success of the SCI program.

Air Bags

The SCI program established a census of the early air bag vehicle crashes that played a pivotal role in the establishment of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208. These SCI air bag cases have been and continue to be used by the agency and the automotive safety community to better understand the real world performance of these systems. They have contributed to the evolution of air bag systems production. SCI continues to monitor crashes involving air bags as the fleet and air bag technology evolves.

School Buses

SCI’s school bus crash investigations are a useful tool to NHTSA in assessing the real world performance of conventional, transit, and van-based school bus crashworthiness and crash avoidance issues. Such issues have included mirror systems, hand rail designs, video monitoring of pupils, and safety belt use. These cases include incidents of children killed or injured as they enter or exit the loading zone.

Emerging Technology

The SCI program's flexibility allows for investigations of new emerging technologies related to automotive safety. A number of incidents involving alternative fuel vehicles, passenger side air bag deployments, vehicle-to-pedestrian impacts, and child restraint systems have been investigated. These anecdotal SCI cases are utilized by NHTSA and the automotive safety community to understand the real world performance of emerging systems.