Monday, April 7, 2014

Are Motorhomes Safe?

Crash statistics for Motorhomes are hard to come by.   Are these vehicles safe?

In my last posting, I analyzed why buying a motorhome on a 20-year note is not a very good idea.   Trailerable RVs are a lot cheaper, to be sure.   But many folks like the idea of the Motorhome for a number of reasons.

Some fantasize about what I call the "70 mph Cheese Sandwich" - that their spouse can make dinner while-you-drive and avoid stopping.   This is an expensive fantasy, and not a very safe one.  You are supposed to be seated and belted down while traveling in an RV.

Others like the idea that the kids and Mom and "spread out and relax" while driving, and thus enjoy the ride more.  And we see this, all the time, on the road, with kids romping on the bed in the back of an old Winnebago, while Mom and Dad sit up front.  The problem with this concept is that unbelted, your little ones become human missiles in the event of an accident.

And actually, everything becomes a missile in the event of an accident. 

If you collide with something in your car, six airbags will deploy, shoulder-harness safety-belts will lock in place (and actually tighten), and you and your family will be protected in a very carefully designed crash cage.

Now, granted, some Class-C motorhomes have airbags and seatbelts, and most Class-A motorhomes have at least seatbelts.  But few are crash-tested in the manner than cars are.

But the real problem with a motorhome collision is that all the junk inside the coach will fly forward in a crash - including cabinets, seats, appliances, contents of cabinet and drawers (including all the knives in your kitchen).  And unbelted children in the back will fly forward until they hit you in the back of the head.

This video shows more clearly how the insides of a motorhome can come apart in a crash.

The "box" part of the camper (particularly older ones) may be put together with just wooden sticks and a thin aluminum or fiberglass veneer.  Some better coaches have aluminum frames, but still are not designed with accidents in mind.  The cabinets and furniture are made of thin lauan plywood, usually stapled together.   None of this stuff is crash-worthy.

So, why isn't there more done to make motorhomes safe?   Well, to begin with, as a percentage of the overall vehicle fleet in America, they represent a pretty small part.   So in terms of accident statistics, they don't represent a big number.

And since they are heavy vehicles, usually a collision with a car or other small vehicle results in the smaller vehicle getting the brunt of it.

Raw data is hard to come by.   In this discussion group, it was noted that NHTSA has data on RV crashes, but trying to normalize this by miles driven is hard to do, as data on miles driven is apparently not collected.

RV accidents do occur, however, and we've seen a few on our journeys.  In many cases, the RV just disintegrates, particularly if it rolls over.  And we even have been to an RV junkyard, where crashed RVs were stored (and some repaired).   They do take a beating.   And we've met people who have lost spouses in RV accidents. 

In a "Class A" coach, you are often sitting right out in front, with little between you and what you hit, other than a windshield and a thin layer of fiberglass.  we met a man who lost his wife this way.  And that is a typical accident result, when a driver falls asleep at the wheel and drives off the road into a tree or a bridge abutment.

RV manufacturers, of course, would suggest that everyone remain seated while you are driving, and wear seatbelts.   However, much RV furniture is mounted sideways and provided with only lap belts.  Moreover, such furniture is not crash-tested for reliability.   And even assuming your children do not become human missiles, there is the issue of other items in the coach coming loose.

Frankly, this latter issue is one reason that when we sold our SUV we bought a mini-pickup truck instead.   Having heavy objects like a generator and the like, in the passenger compartment of your vehicle, is not safe if you get into an accident.  The pickup truck, in contrast, has a cargo area that is sealed off from the passenger compartment of the truck.  Frankly, I don't understand why SUV makers (and wagon makers) don't have some sort of cargo net (and a serious one, not some elastic dingus) separating the cargo from the people.  But I digress.....

But it should be pointed out that in some coaches, particularly class-A coaches, some furniture isn't even bolted down.  Many people have recliner chairs or folding tables in their coaches that just sit there, waiting to slam you in the back of the head, in the event of an accdient.

The author of the discussion group noted above, came to the following conclusions:

The revised FARS analysis shows that a total of 212 individuals perished in motorhome accidents in the years 2000-2007 for an average of just over 26 fatalities per year.  This represents an average rate of fatality of 0.44 per 100 Million Vehicle Miles vs. 1.48 for all vehicles in the United States, or roughly one third the average rate of all motor vehicles.  (See Chart "Fatality Mileage Normalization Chart")

1) The "Initial Harmful Event" which is the event deemed to have caused the crash, was overwhelmingly due to striking another vehicle in "your" roadway (45%).  That can mean a vehicle traveling the same direction of a divided highway, or a vehicle traveling in either direction of an undivided road.  Vehicle Roll-over, Striking a Guard Rail, and Striking a Tree, each represented approximately 9% of total crashes respectively. (See Chart "Initial Harmful Event")
2) The majority of fatalities occurred in the front seats of the motorhome, with 80% being either the driver or passenger.  Of the 26 rear compartment fatalities, only 2 persons died while using a restraint (seat belt).  No children using child safety seats died during the analysis period. (See Chart "Fatalities by Seating Position and Restraint Usage).
3) Alcohol did not appear to be a significant contributor to motorhome fatalities. (Less than 1% reported drinking as a factor)
4) The majority of fatalities occurred on rural interstates and/or major rural highways (54%). (See Chart "Road Type")
5) Trailers of any type were only reported in 26 of 212 fatalities during the study period.  Of those, only 3 were reported as towed vehicles, however that statistic was only added to the database in 2005 and is therefore statistically irrelevant. (See Chart "Fatality by Reported Trailer Use")

It is difficult to come to any supportable conclusions about accident causation, however, what it is clear that motorhomes are statistically very safe relative to the overall vehicular population.  What limited fatal crashes do occur appear to be largely caused by striking other vehicles and fixed objects near the roadway and the resulting fatalities seem to most often occur in the front seat.  Given that there were only 26 reported deaths of individuals in the rear area and only 2 of those were belted, one can draw their own conclusion about the merits of using a belt.  This author draws solace in the fact that not a single child in a child safety seat perished during the study period.

This is an interesting report, as it does show that these vehicles are involved in fewer fatal accidents than ordinary cars.  However, I think this may be due to a number of factors:

1.  Age of drivers:  Most RV'ers are older and may tend to drive slower (unless they have Quebec tags, then all bets are off!).

2.  Weight of vehicles:  The heavier a vehicle is, the more likely it will deform whatever it is hitting, rather than suddenly decelerate.  You are going to be safer in a heavier vehicle, period.

3.  Type of driving:  Most RV driving is on Interstate roads, where the accident rate is low, even though speeds are high.  As the report notes, rural roads are where the fatalities occur, but there are far fewer of them than with cars.   For city collisions (intersection accidents) the speeds are low enough and the weight factor tilts in the RV's favor.

More modern Class-B and Class-C coaches are built to passenger vehicle safety standards.

Of course, a whole new generation of class-B and class-C motorhomes, such as built on the Mercedes Sprinter or Fiat chassis, are becoming very popular.  And these types of coaches have had crash tests and of course, airbags and the like.

Class-A coaches (which are built on a raw chassis) on the other hand, generally do not have airbags, and have not undergone any sort of crash safety testing.

From a design point of view, motorhomes are not intrinsically safer than a car or pickup truck, but in fact, probably less safe, due to the potential for flying debris in an accident.   However, statistically, they are safer on the road, due to the way they are driven and by who drives them - as well as their weight.   More modern Class-B and Class-C coaches are likely to be safer than Class-A motorhomes and older Class B's and C's.

And it goes without saying, that walking around in your motorhome, unbelted, while driving, is a very unsafe thing to do.   Not that I've never done, it, of course.

UPDATE:  A reader sends this picture of their Sprinter Class-C after a rollover incident involving another car.   It looks like other RV accidents we have seen.   As you can see, the "box" part of the motorhome basically disintegrates in a situation like this, while the cab portion remains relatively intact.   However, all the debris and objects inside the camper can intrude into the cab during such an accident.

While motorhome accidents may be rare, when they do occur, they can be serious.
The accident above occurred when a car (rolled over in the rear of the photo) struck the camper while attempting to pass.

Note that two of the biggest problems with RVs are overloading and under-inflation.  Until recently, motorhome manufacturers produced rigs that were very close to gross vehicle weight, even when unloaded.   Throw in two people and several hundred pounds of gear, and many were overloaded from the get-go.  Today, new regulations require that manufacturers provide realistic load carrying capacities and also prominently display these.

Tire under-inflation can lead to blowouts and in some cases, loss of control (particularly in marginal setups).   It goes without saying to check your tire pressures and know what pressure they should be inflated to.    Load carrying capacity of a tire drops off dramatically with tire pressure.  A tire that is 10 psi below rated pressure may lose 25-50% of its load carrying capacity.