Desert Race Turns Deadly
Spectators gathered around a dirt racetrack in a rocky, high-mountain desert valley last Saturday for the all-night off-road race known as California 200. Standing just feet from the track, they cheered as racers driving off-road vehicles speed through the desert and hurdled over dirt mounds, becoming airborne for minutes at a time. At dusk, the evening’s festivities took a fatal turn when the driver of a modified Ford Ranger landed his jump less than 10 feet from the racecourse, killing 8 and serious injuring 10 bystanders.
The event’s promoters, Mojave Desert Racing of El Monte (MDR), and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have been the focus of much public censure in the days following the tragic off-road race. The BLM—the federal agency responsible for managing the Lucerne Valley land on which the race occurred—issued a permit to MDR prohibiting off-road racers from coming within less than 50 feet of spectators or any gathering of people. Not only did MDR disregard this requirement, the BLM failed to enforce it. If spectators had been forced to stand at least 50 feet from the racetrack, this off-road accident could have been prevented.
Despite widespread criticism from the public, neither Mojave Desert Racing nor the Bureau of Land Management has admitted to negligence in the matter. MDR has only offered its condolences to the desert race accident victims and their families.
The desert-race tragedy underscores the risks of off roading. Commercially introduced in the 1990s, recreational off-road vehicles (ROVs) are characterized by having low pressure tires designed for all-terrain use. As the popularity of off roading has surged over the years, so has the incidence of off-road accidents resulting in injury or fatality. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) received reports of 116 fatalities and 152 injuries caused by ROV accidents that occurred between 2003 and 2009.
For those individuals who survive an ROV accident, the injuries they sustain are likely to be life altering: amputated limbs, severely torn sections of skin and tissue, and permanent disfigurement. The high number of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from off-roading accidents prompted the CPSC to form a Commission to evaluate the design of off-road vehicles with the aim improving their construction and, ultimately, safety.
The Commission analyzed and tested multiple ROV models and found that certain features of their design made them unsafe: lateral stability, handling, and passenger safety. The degree of lateral stability a vehicle has is dependent on it static stability factor (SSF). According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there is a strong correlation between a vehicle's SSF and its risk of rollover. If a vehicle has a high SSF, its risk of rollover is reduced. Tests revealed that ROVs have a low SSF.
When the ROVs were tested for handling, it was found that they were prone to oversteering, causing them to be directionally unstable and unpredictable. The high frequency of spin outs and rollovers in ROV accidents could be partially attributed to oversteering. In many of the ROV accidents recorded by the CPSC, passengers were ejected from the vehicle. To combat this problem, the Commission recommended that manufacturers improve seat belts, lower the level of the seats in relation to the vehicle, and provide shoulder guards for passengers.
If Saturday’s off-road race accident and the CPSC Commission’s study suggest anything about this recreational activity, it is that off-roading is extremely dangerous—from the construction of the vehicles to the nature of their use. Until improvements are made to the design of ROVs and rules for off-roading races are revised and strictly enforced, it may be wise to avoid off roading altogether.
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