Expertly Speaking

What is the NHTSA?

Leslie Lovre-King, Technical Assistant

Ensuring automotive safety is the prime mission of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Among others, NHTSA accomplishes this mission by establishing vehicle safety ratings, collecting and maintaining crash statistics, and implementing public safety awareness initiatives. Perhaps the most common association the motoring public has with NHTSA is through its role in the automotive recall process; however, what many people may not know is that most vehicle recalls are initiated not by NHTSA, but by individual vehicle manufacturers.

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Child Drowns when Church Camp Visits Swimming Beach

Tom Griffiths, Ed.D., Aquatic Safety Expert

Near the end of the summer season, a church camp brought a large group of children to a life-guarded lake for a day of swimming. At the last moment, a young child was placed in the camp as a favor to the mother. This mother did not complete the required paperwork and permission slip to participate in the camp. Despite not obtaining the proper paperwork from the mother, the church camp allowed the child to attend the lake trip and partake in the activities.

When the young child approached the water’s edge, lifeguards on duty told the child and chaperone the “water-wings” she was wearing were not allowed in the swimming area, but did not offer the child a life jacket or any other acceptable form of drowning prevention equipment. Additionally, the lifeguards did not watch the at risk child carefully after asking her to remove her floaties. Making matters worse, just prior to the child entering the water, two of the five on-duty lifeguards left the lake to participate in high school football practice.

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The “Crotchity” Old Tree

Russell E. Carlson, RCA, BCMA, Arboricultural Consultant

Case Synopsis: A line of severe thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds passed over the central Pennsylvania region. Trees and utility wires were brought down throughout the region. In a local town, at a municipal park, a summer amusement festival was in progress. With the approach of the storm, the festival organizers closed the grounds and asked all patrons to leave the premises. Some workers at the festival remained to close the booths and secure the site.

One worker in the main food tent was moving equipment to a secure location away from the anticipated rain. The storm struck suddenly, with wind gusts blasting through the area. A large Norway maple tree broke at a crotch about 6 feet above the ground, crashing through the food tent, striking and pinning the volunteer worker beneath the limbs causing serious injuries.

Analysis: Questions raised included whether the defects that were present in the tree and that resulted in the limb failure were identifiable in advance, and who should have been aware of those defects. The park was owned by the municipality. A tree service contractor had been employed on occasion to provide tree care services to trees in this park and other locations in town, and had been working on the site within two months of the incident. Both were named as defendants.

The analysis showed that the tree was an old Norway maple, with three main co-dominant trunks. The area where the trunks diverged had a condition called included bark, a known indicator of crotch weakness in large trees. Retrospective inspection after the tree broke revealed that the interior of the trunk that fell was extensively decayed. The profile for this species of tree indicates that older Norway maples are subject to extensive decay, especially when associated with narrow crotch angles and included bark. Although the tree failed during a strong-wind event, the tree was at high risk of failure even under lesser loads.

Based on the analysis of the tree failure, it was determined that the weakened condition of the tree was readily apparent to visual inspection prior to the failure incident. Casual observation of the tree would have identified the narrow crotch configuration and the presence of included bark between the large trunks. Simple testing procedures, such as sounding with a mallet for hollowness, could have detected the presence of decay. The tree service personnel had sufficient training and experience to be aware of these conditions, and should have known that the tree presented an elevated risk of failure. The municipality expected that the tree service would make basic risk assessments of its trees and provide warnings and recommendations for appropriate action. The municipality was also deemed to be at fault for its failure to clearly specify that the tree service was expected to provide basic risk assessments and safety warnings.

Result: Both parties settled separately.

Russell E. Carlson, RCA, BCMA, Arboricultural Consultant with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at or via phone at 215-659-2010.

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So You Think You Know All That Cellphones Can Do

Timothy R. Primrose, Mobile Forensic Analyst

The typical thought process for involving cell phone data relevant to a collision in a forensic investigation follows something like, “was the person texting and driving or were they victim to distracted driving?” Yes, cell phone extractions can assist in answering these questions, however, these are not the only answers that cell phone data can offer in such an investigation.

In a recent case, a commercial truck became disabled on a public roadway. Protocol for this situation requires the vehicle operator to place either emergency flares or reflective triangles at varied distances behind the truck within 10 minutes of the truck becoming disabled. These precautions are taken to reduce the risk of a collision; however, in this case, a collision did occur.

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Motorcycle vs Pothole

Hugh B. Borbidge, BSME, Director of Engineering Animations



Potholes are formed when water beneath the roadway expands and contracts, weakening the roadway material. Additionally, vehicles traveling over these spots assist in breaking down and displacing the weakened areas, eventually resulting in roadway imperfections.

Potholes are a natural enemy of the motorcycle operator. One unseen or unavoidable pothole can turn a joyride into a tragic event. This 3D engineering animation illustrates an example of one such scenario where a motorcycle operator could not avoid the pothole, resulting in a loss of control.

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Trailer Hitching Significance

R. Scott King, BSME, CFEI, Principal Automotive/Mechanical Engineer

Trailering a boat or camper is often associated with fun and adventure. Making the connection between the towing vehicle and trailer is usually the last step before departure; however, experience routinely shows that there are several important steps to undertake before it is “wheels up.” There are several resources available to the recreational tower. One such resource provided here by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) includes several pre-trip checks and considerations relating to towing safety. Among them are properly matched equipment, weight and weight distribution, and equipment condition. A recent case demonstrated how important these checks can be.

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