January 31, 2020
The auto racing industry has struggled to improve driver safety. There have been a number of fatal accidents involving race car drivers in recent years, including Dan Wheldon at the 2011 IZOD IndyCar World Championship in Las Vegas and Justin Wilson in the 2015 ABC Supply 500 at the Pocono Raceway. Guelph, Ontario driver Robert Wickens was paralyzed following a crash at the 2018 ABC Supply 500.
The crash that left Wickens paralyzed was a result of his car flying into the catchfence (the steel barrier that prevents cars from landing in the stands after becoming airborne during violent collisions). Catchfences use old technology similar to a chain-link fence and were originally designed to protect spectators. But they frequently shred cars and injure drivers in the process.
The Globe and Mail recently reviewed U.S. and Canadian patent databases for concepts (examples here and here) that have been put forward to make auto racing safer, such as increasing the cushioning and catching effect of the catchfence while moving rigid poles and other dangerous parts further from the track.
Although auto racing is a major industry in several countries, profit margins at individual racetrack facilities are sometimes slim and implementing these types of solutions can be costly. According to The Globe, some facilities were initially hesitant to adopt the SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) barrier when it was first introduced in 2002 because of its steep price tag, even though it was designed to absorb kinetic energy during the impact of a high speed crash.
Authors: Larissa Fulop and Matt McDonald