Avoidable decisions

The other day while sitting in the garden looking at his roses, The Mole read an article in the newspaper about an unpleasant accident which occurred in England. A skydiver was happily falling through the sky (as they like to do) when he hit the wing of a passing glider aircraft. The force of the impact was such that the wing came off the glider and it spiralled down to earth out of control, killing the pilot. It goes without saying that the sky-diver was also dead.

All things considered it was an unpleasant tale and quite disturbed The Mole.

In the fullness of time there will be an inquest (it may already have happened) and the facts of the case will be considered. Was one or the other person involved in a place where they should not have been? Were any rules broken? If not the coroner might recommend that the local aero clubs work out a system in which gliders and sky-divers do not try to share the same airspace at the same time.

In all probability the coroner will rule that the deaths were caused by misadventure, which seems to be the legal term for very bad luck. They would be unlikely to rule that it was an avoidable accident although clearly that is the case because there is no reason why someone should be flying in a glider, nor why someone else should be ski-diving. There is no reason why the two should have collided. It just happened.

The point of this outburst of logic is that a coroner in Melbourne ruled earlier this year that the death of a marshal during the Australian GP in 2001 was "avoidable" despite the fact that it was a complete fluke that Jacques Villeneuve's flying BAR-Honda was launched into a wall at the precise height and angle which enabled a wheel to be squeezed through a small gap in the debris fencing and then bounce along behind the barriers and hit a marshal in the chest.

The entire racing world understood very quickly that there had been an amazing set of circumstances but the coroner decided that no matter what happened the death was still avoidable.

And that is a big problem. It is inevitable that when people go racing there will be accidents. Every now and then there will be a bad accident. And once in a blue moon there will be an accident in which someone is killed. All accidents are avoidable because no-one forces us to go motor racing. The only way to make racing accidents avoidable is to not hold any motor races.

By ruling that last year's accident was avoidable the coroner in Melbourne has put the Australian GP in jeopardy because now there are legal issues which must be sorted out. If, for example, there is another accident in Albert Park and someone else is killed the lawyers may come forward and argue that a coroner ruled that all motor racing accidents are avoidable and therefore the organisers of the race are culpable for having held a race.

That may sound ridiculous, but The Mole has long felt that being ridiculous is what lawyers do best and so the sport, which is run by a lawyer (although quite a sensible one), must protect itself against that situation.

The motor racing world is also less than satisfied with the qualifications of the "safety expert" who gave evidence to the court in Melbourne. Rather than being someone with experience of the automotive world the "expert" was a man who was trained in explosive, electrical and radiation hazards but who runs a consultancy business which specialises in repetitive strain injuries. The Mole heard the suggestion that his research into the aerodynamics of racing cars involved asking an airline pilot what would happen if air got under a Formula 1 car. The "expert" made headlines by saying that in his opinion the debris fencing in Albert Park was not high enough and should be doubled in height. The remarks did not take into account the fact that the death of the marshal had been caused by a wheel that had gone through a narrow opening in the fence that was designed to allow fire marshals rapid access to the circuit in case of a fire rather than over the top of the barriers.

The Mole felt at the time that the steel-mesh debris fencing had done a remarkable job to stop all the major components of Jacques Villeneuve's flying car. There were a few small pieces of debris which did get through the fence but the safety structures were for the most part very effective and did what they are supposed to do.

The FIA last week published the provisional calendar for the 2003 Formula 1 World Championship and the federation appears to have ruled that unless the local authorities can sort out the mess which the coroner has created the Australian Grand Prix is also avoidable.

There is nothing wrong with the race track in Albert Park. There is nothing wrong with the city. It is a very popular venue with the F1 circus and the race has done great things for the image of the City of Melbourne but law is law and if the Australians want another race they need to come up with assurances that there will be no more silly rulings in the unlikely and unfortunate event of another fatal accident.

The Mole hopes that they can do it because otherwise he can see a situation in which the Formula 1 circus will be off to China in March 2004.

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