Tuesday, June 5, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Rusty Haight has caused quite a few car wrecks — 958, to be exact.
He’s walked away from all of them with nothing more than a few minor injuries, evidenced by some bumps and bruises on his wrists.
No, Haight doesn’t deserve the World’s Worst Driver Award. In fact, the word “accident” doesn’t accurately define his crashes.
As director of the Collision Safety Institute, Haight is the man behind the wheel who purposely hits other vehicles — all in the name of education. He’s in town for the 11th annual ARC-CSI Crash Conference, where law enforcement authorities, accident investigators and engineers, among others, converge for real-life enactments of vehicle accidents. It’s the conference’s 10th year at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“The key to good traffic safety is good accident investigations,” Haight said. “Without that, we’re flying blind.”
Conference attendees — people from the all over the United States and around the world — clutched cameras Monday morning in a lot next to the speedway, where they eagerly awaited the first crash.
Two dummies occupied the back of an ambulance in normal positions: The “patient” lay on a gurney, stood over by the “paramedic.”
The pretend medical work didn’t last long, though.
An unmanned silver Pontiac Grand Prix, operated by remote control, rammed into the ambulance as it was about to turn. A loud bang echoed through the lot as glass broke, metal bent and the ambulance swayed from side to side.
Inside the ambulance, the patient’s upper body was hanging off the gurney, and the paramedic’s head had landed on the metal frame of the gurney.
“I would say concussion,” said an attendee, peering inside the ambulance and predicting injuries had the occupants been human.
Awhile later, Haight drove a 2011 Chrysler Town and Country into two parked cars — emulating common multivehicle collisions that occur around the world, he said.
In that case, authorities and attendees were most interested in the van’s airbag control module, a device that records specific crash information, similar to an airplane’s “black box,” Haight said.
The crash testing allows investigators to see how car systems and safety restraints work, in addition to how a vehicle’s crumple zones react in an accident, said Scott Baker, owner of Collision Publishing, which hosts the conference.
“Everything is documented beforehand and documented after the crash,” he said.
Research gleaned from the test crashes is then used to improve safety, Baker said.
From the sidelines, competitor accident investigators Ron Probert and Greg DuVal chatted as they watched the crashes. Both are former police officers who became accident investigators, aiding mostly insurance companies and lawyers.
Probert works for Collision Forensics and Engineering in Salt Lake City, while DuVal heads DuVal Investigations in Provo, Utah.
“A lot of the stuff that comes out (of the crash testing) helps validate what we’ve seen all along,” DuVal said.
His competitor agreed. “This is good training for everybody,” Probert said.
Others attended with more specific goals in mind:
Bruce Mather, president of Lap Belt Cinch Inc., came to test his CG Lock, a product that clips onto seatbelts and prevents slack in the lap belt. He said it reduces injuries.
Frank Hahnel, accident investigation manager of Leica Geosystems, came to showcase his company’s 3D laser scanner, which can map out crime scenes and car crashes. He said the system has been used for the Trayvon Martin and Casey Anthony cases.
Al Brandon, an accident investigator who works in the bus safety department for New York City’s Metro Transit Authority, sought ideas for safety improvements. He also wanted to view common crashes involving buses and learn about the most likely resulting injuries.
“Is it enough to break a back or neck?” he said. “We’re not sure, but we get sued for millions.”
After Monday’s seven crash tests, attendees will spend a couple of days analyzing the data, said Metro Police Sgt. Richard Strader, who’s part of the traffic bureau’s fatal detail.
“To see (crashes) actually happen, you can’t put a price on it,” he said.