Application Development

TraumaHawk: Iowa app helps model car crash injuries

“Car crashes are not seen as a public health issue,” says Daniel McGehee, project principal investigator and director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division at the University of Iowa, over the phone. “We worry a lot about cancer, but depending on what age group you’re in, the car is the most dangerous thing you do in your day.”

McGehee has been “obsessed by car crashes” for 20 years. His career began as a cockpit designer, he moved into designing “automotive cockpits” and very soon “became interested in how drivers respond”. He then did some research into developing crash avoidance technology and his course was set. Now TraumaHawk app is the culmination of all this work.

TraumaHawk is a prototype app that sends photos from the scene of a motor vehicle crash to hospital emergency rooms before the victims arrive. At the moment “paramedics can literally just show up with a very complicated trauma case,” explains McGehee. “This app means we increase the amount of notice that the trauma centre can get substantially.”

The app has been two years’ in the making and has been piloted in rural eastern Iowa over the last 12 months. In this short time period it has already generated a lot of interest from the UK and Sweden, along with other parts of the US.

“The thing we didn’t foresee was how much it has enhanced communication in general between law enforcement and the trauma centre,” says McGehee. “Historically, at least here in the States, there has been friction between law enforcement and the trauma centre.”

A lot of this comes down to different expectations of privacy that exist between police personnel, who may want to prosecute a person for unlawful behaviour, and a hospital, which may not want hand over a necessary medical evidence.

The police are frequently on the front end of these horrible crashes explains McGehee. “Now once they’ve secured the scene they have time to take these very strategic photos.” This can help give them a meaningful role in the patient’s recovery, as these images allow people in the trauma unit to evaluate the crush pattern of the vehicle. These pictures “tell a story about patient’s injuries”.

“We have developed prediction models,” says McGehee. For example a bent steering wheel in a frontal collision will generally mean the driver was not wearing their seatbelt and represents a certain type of chest injury. “We’re not interested in the patient necessarily, but by looking at the crush patterns of the vehicle” the team can learn what kind of state the victim is likely to be in.

McGehee hopes that eventually this sort of technology will become an integral part of car production, yet this is still some distance away. “We need to develop a net of sensors that automatically measure the different kinds of crush into the vehicle and that is a fairly complicated technology.”

While this app may be the start of something much bigger, it will certainly help reveal some important intelligence. “Every time I drive I observe traffic and how people respond and how they don’t respond,” says McGehee “and so over the years this has become a search”.

There are clear patterns in any crash on a local and global scale. “In the UK [these are usually a] side impact in an intersection crash. In the US it is a car in a lonely highway by itself that just drifts off the road, loses control and rolls over, or hits something... [often] a tree.” 

“Car crashes are a huge public health issue,” concludes McGehee “and in the United States, for young drivers, they are the number one cause of death.”


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