Iowans who had the TV tuned to any news or sports channel over the weekend likely saw the horrific NASCAR crash from which rookie driver Michael McDowell walked away on Saturday at the Texas Motor Speedway. A new style of guard rail, developed in the Midwest, is credited with saving McDowell’s life.
The Iowa Speedway at Newton was the first track built with the new barriers, while Texas and others have retro-fitted their walls, following a similar crash that killed famed racer Dale Earnhardt died in 2001 at Daytona. Dean Sicking, a University of Nebraska civil engineering professor, was contacted several years before the Earnhardt crash to research track safety.
Sicking says: "In 1998, the Indy Racing League came to University of Nebraska and asked us to lead the effort to develop an energy absorbent barrier that would be used on race tracks. From that time through 2003, we worked on the development of the ‘Safer Barrier.’ NASCAR later came in and supported the program and with their funding from the Indy Race League and NASCAR, we were able to come up with the ‘Safer Barrier’ system."
Sicking says a number of changes were made and they came up with the "Safer Barrier" system. "We started with an effort to refine a design that was developed by the Indy Racing League which was basically a polyethylene barrier system and we spent several years trying to make that design work and ultimately concluded it couldn’t be done," Sicking said, "thereafter, we started working on a barrier that utilized a seal system in front of an energy absorbing device and so the current safer design utilizes steel tubes as the barrier surface and energy absorbing foam blocks behind it to absorb the energy of the crash."
Sicking says the Safer Barrier could be adapted to use on highways across Iowa and nationwide. He says: "There’s no question in my mind that the Safer Barrier principal can be applied to highways and can provide significant improvement in safety under some high risk locations. But currently, it’s designed for race car impacts and race cars are not very similar to highway vehicles. So basically, the currently embodiment is way too stiff for passenger cars but if we re-designed it, refined it for passenger vehicles, we think it could make a significant improvement to highway safety and many high risk locations."
Sicking says the same principals will be much easier to implement on the highway and much less costly. He says this technology has been used in highway research over the past five or six years and has resulted in improved safety on our highways.