News & Media

SAFER Barrier has made a real difference

July 19, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Technology has grown as NASCAR races have become safer across the board

Concerned with the rising number of high-impact crashes resulting in driver injuries, then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George began looking for a solution. The first application, a Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System -- or PEDS -- was designed by retired General Motors engineer John Pierce and placed on an interior wall near the entrance to pit road in 1998.

"I believe that the SAFER Barrier has out-performed everyone's expectations and, whether the drivers realize it or not, the SAFER Barrier has greatly improved their chances of walking away from a major crash."


It received its first real test when Arie Luyendyk struck it at a high rate of speed during the International Race of Champions event later that season. It kept the driver from suffering serious injuries, but the barrier came apart under the stress of the crash: littering the track with pieces of plastic, creating a safety hazard for the other cars and requiring an extensive cleanup.

So George turned to Midwest Roadside Safety Facility director Dr. Dean Sicking, a civil engineer. Sicking first helped redesign the PEDS barrier, then began work on a new design. He placed crushable foam insulation behind a series of square steel tubes and called it the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier -- or better known by its acronym, SAFER.

By 2000, NASCAR had joined in the development of the project. And the first SAFER Barriers were ready for installation at the Speedway in time for the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Now a fixture at every oval track on which NASCAR races, telemetry from accidents has shown SAFER Barriers significantly reduce the forces that cause injuries in high-speed accidents.

"We have been very pleased with the performance of the SAFER Barrier," Sicking said. "There have been several SAFER Barrier crashes under extreme impact conditions where the barrier's performance has far exceeded my expectations.

"Since its installation several years ago, NASCAR's top three series and the Indy Racing League have not experienced a barrier-related fatality. If you look back through recent history prior to the SAFER Barrier development, the majority of fatalities in these series have been barrier-related."

In addition, Sicking said the number of serious injuries involving barrier crashes have been dramatically reduced during that same time frame. Since the introduction of SAFER, there have been a number of high-speed, acute-angle impacts. But in nearly every instance, the driver suffered no ill effects.

Take Michael McDowell's qualifying lap crash at Texas in 2008. He lost control of his car at speeds approaching 190 mph, shot up the track and hit the SAFER Barrier nearly head-on. The car then flipped eight times before coming to a stop. The car was destroyed, but McDowell climbed out uninjured.

"I believe that the SAFER Barrier has out-performed everyone's expectations and, whether the drivers realize it or not, the SAFER Barrier has greatly improved their chances of walking away from a major crash," Sicking said.

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According to Sicking, the key to why SAFER Barriers work has been an improvement in the level of understanding "energy management," a fancy term for explaining the physics of an accident. Kinetic energy is transferred when a moving vehicle hits another object, and the SAFER Barrier allows much of that to be dissipated away, instead of being transferred to the occupant.

But coming up with a workable solution wasn't an overnight success story.

"It takes about eight to 10 years to get a significant improvement in technology," Sicking said. "The SAFER Barrier really helped us a lot in our program, in particular, in the analysis procedure we use to design barriers. It was a tremendous analysis problem to be able to design the SAFER Barrier for impacts at the speeds and angles we were looking at in NASCAR. And that helped us learn a lot about doing analysis that we haven't been able to do in the past, in designing other barriers."

And Sicking applauds the sanctioning body for taking safety seriously, and continuing to search for ways to make racing safer in the future.

"NASCAR's doing the right thing," he said. "They focused on the outer barrier because that was their biggest problem. It's now no longer their biggest problem, so they're studying the complete safety of their tracks to make sure they are focusing energy, resources and attention on solving the biggest safety problems."