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Making the roads safer for 40 years – AXA Accident Research and Prevention

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AXA Accident Research & Prevention turns 40 this year. Head Michael Pfäffli gives us a fascinating insight into its work and explains how it helps to prevent accidents and save lives. He also tells us about AXA's crash tests and the challenges facing accident research and makes a prediction for the future.

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    Michael Pfäffli

    Michael Pfäffli is Head of AXA Accident Research & Prevention and Chairman of the AXA Foundation for Prevention. He has held various customer service and research functions at AXA since 2017.

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Michael Pfäffli, how do you get to be an accident researcher?

I'm very much a born researcher, curious about causes, effects, and interactions. That said, I don't think you can plan a career in this field, but the essential prerequisites are an interest in mobility and a fascination for all things automotive.

What is the working environment like?

Our team's made up of people with different backgrounds, and I think that's vital. We have engineers, biomechanics specialists, IT experts, and colleagues with highly specialized skills like vehicular forensics. I'm a social scientist with a background in market research. 

As far as working with the team goes, we all have different tasks but the same shared goal: to improve road safety in Switzerland. Our research is geared to reducing the number of accidents. It's a huge and complex challenge that no one can face alone – it can only be done by working together. 

Can you describe a typical day for the accident research team? 

We collect vehicle and accident data, analyze and interpret them, and draw useful conclusions that we then translate into prevention recommendations.

Vehicular forensics involves recovering digital records from vehicles that have been in an accident and then reading and interpreting them to reconstruct the accident and determine who was to blame.

Due to our specialist skills, some of us spend a lot of time working outdoors, inspecting and assessing crashed vehicles. Others visit customers or provide companies with advice on road safety and accident prevention on site. 

"AXA's crash tests are an important part of our work, and we learn a lot from them."

Michael Pfäffli, Head of Accident Research & Prevention

AXA Accident Research & Prevention is known for its annual crash tests.

Yes, the crash tests are a really important part of our work, and we learn a lot from them. They're intended as a tangible demonstration of the importance of our research work, which covers a wide range of topics. We're also involved in various national and international research projects.

What has changed in accident research over the past 40 years?

First and foremost, the digital transformation has had a profound effect on accident research. In terms of accident reconstruction, for instance, collecting and analyzing evidence used to be a painstaking process. We had to work out what had happened from skid marks, vehicle position, and structural deformation. 

These days, we can recover digital records that allow us to piece together a detailed picture of the accident. The more data we have, and the more precise they are, the greater the legal certainty when we draw up our report. 

Road traffic accidents infographic

The number of fatalities due to road traffic accidents has fallen by more than 80% in the past 40 years. Source: Swiss Federal Statistical Office

How do you rate the impact your work has?

Our main goal has always been to reduce the number of accidents. If we look at the statistics, we can see that road safety has improved dramatically over the last 40 years. Claims have fallen by almost 50% since 1981. The figures for fatalities are even more encouraging: they're over 80% lower than they were 40 years ago.  

However, we must never forget that every road accident victim is one too many. We've brought about a massive improvement in safety, but we aren't where we want to be just yet.

Have there been any new discoveries in accident research?

Yes, there have. We're genuinely seeing a new phenomenon in that accidents are happening less often but becoming more and more expensive. This is because today's cars are equipped with an increasing number of assistance systems that use delicate sensors, cameras, and radars. As a result, a minor accident that smashes up the bumper can easily result in a high repair bill. 

In accident research, we're thinking hard about what we can do to turn this unwelcome trend around. We're even in the process of creating a whole new discipline: repair research. We want to understand when it's better to repair certain parts than to replace them. Besides saving money, it's also the more sustainable solution and thus better for the environment.

What trends do you expect to see in the next 40 years of accident research?

Two clear trends we're already taking an interest in are electromobility and self-driving vehicles. As an accident researcher, I'm asking questions such as 

  • how electric power will affect road safety and
  • whether self-driving vehicles will increase safety further and prevent accidents.

We have a few early signs of the answers to both of these questions. We're actually seeing significantly more claims involving very large and high-powered electric vehicles compared with their combustion-engined counterparts. We need to gain a better understanding of the exact causes of this and how the trend will develop going forward.

What impact will self-driving vehicles have?

They'll probably make our roads safer. The additional assistance systems they need will hopefully bring the number of accidents down even further. 

The smarter our cars get, the more challenges they'll bring. We have to assume that partially autonomous vehicles will create new risks and ultimately lead to more accidents, for example when an autopilot hands control back to a human driver. This is very clear from studies conducted by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. Only when we have full autonomy will the pros outweigh the cons (source: The impact of self-driving vehicles on road traffic safety. EBP 2018). 

What is your greatest wish as regards prevention?

Vision Zero, meaning accident-free mobility, is of course high on our list of priorities as accident research and prevention specialists. We're working together to bring it closer to reality. 

I'm particularly interested in protecting more vulnerable road users such as children. They're still inexperienced in dealing with traffic and can't assess risks as well as adults. We need to support them. That's not only my personal wish, it's one of our foremost prevention tasks.

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