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Tuesday, August 14
Safety should start from the inside
Associated Press

A safety expert who studied the fatal crash of Dale Earnhardt said improvements to stock cars should focus on the cockpit and include head and neck restraints plus safety nets.

"The first line of defense is the seating area," John Melvin, a crash safety consultant for NASCAR's automakers, told The Associated Press.

A published report claims the results of the investigation into the death of the seven-time Winston Cup champion will stress exterior improvements to cars.

Melvin, who spent 17 years working in university research and 13 years as a safety engineer with General Motors before becoming a consultant, said a combination of head and neck restraints, six-way seatbelt harnesses, safer seats and safety nets would do more to protect drivers than changes to the outside of the cars.

The most recent addition to that combination of interior safety items is the netting being used by some teams to keep the drivers from being thrust forward and to the right in an angled impact.

Before that, a number of the teams had added little wings, jutting out from the seat and protecting the sides of the head and the torso. The netting has been added alongside the driver.

"The right side was a wide-open area before and there was nothing to stop the driver from being violently thrown to the side," Melvin said during a telephone interview. "The HANS (Head and Neck System) will help protect the driver in a frontal crash but doesn't keep him from moving to the side."

He said Michael Waltrip, who won the season-opening Daytona 500 as Earnhardt crashed into the wall on the final lap Feb. 18, benefited from having those devices in his car when he wrecked in April at California Speedway. Waltrip was not injured.

"Without the combination of safety features in the driver area, that could easily have been another fatality," Melvin said.

Earnhardt did not have those his car. He died of a basilar skull fracture after his head was whipped forward at the moment of impact.

The death of NASCAR's biggest star -- the fourth driver death in less than a year -- prompted the sanctioning body to commission a far-reaching independent investigation involving more than 50 experts on automotive safety.

The Orlando Sentinel reported Friday that the investigation found that cars aren't safe enough in crashes, citing sources close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Results of the investigation are scheduled to be released by NASCAR on Tuesday in Atlanta.

The Sentinel story said a key point of the report is that the stock cars, built by individual race teams and inspected by NASCAR, lack sufficient crush resistance in the front ends to adequately protect drivers in the most severe crashes.

Redesigning the cars with energy-absorbent bumpers and aluminum foam crash box technology, both currently in development, would be a priority.

"Controlled crush is what we call it," Melvin said. "There's an old adage in the car business: you take what's already there and make it work for you.

"There's plenty that can be done to improve that situation, and it should be improved. But it's the seating package that's the most important. We have to tune up things inside the cars. That's the best way to make the drivers safer."

NASCAR has been criticized for not making such safety innovations as the HANS required equipment for every driver, but Melvin disagrees.

"To make these things mandatory would be difficult," he said. "The safety package in stock cars is just totally up to the driver, and that's probably the way it should be because these drivers have such individual needs.

"What works for somebody who is 6-foot-5 doesn't necessarily work the same for somebody 5-6."

The HANS and some other head and neck restraints have gained wide acceptance since Earnhardt's death, with 33 of the 43 starters using them last month in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. There also has been considerable work done by many of the teams on making the seats and seating area safer.

That still leaves some drivers in more peril, according to Melvin.

"We haven't gotten to all the drivers yet," he said. "Some things just don't sound right to them at first. Then it becomes myth and the drivers begin to believe things. A lot of them have made changes since Earnhardt's death, but some of them still are doing exactly what they've always done.

"The more they see that these things really work, more of them will begin using them."

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Life after Dale
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