The case of the open door
November 23, 2010 9:10 PM   Subscribe

What's the most plausible explanation for how this car crash happened?

More pictures in the Flickr set.

The wheel on the ground does not match any of the cars present - the uphill car has all four wheels, and the tread pattern doesn't match the lower two cars. It might be a spare "donut" wheel? There's no way the Lexus could have opened its door with the truck there. That's about all I can figure out. They're on a reasonably steep hill which was covered in ice and being driven on by Seattle drivers who aren't particularly good at this.
posted by 0xFCAF to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I remember an ice storm in PDX that covered the roads in ice. Even for someone from the northeast who has dealt with horrible weather in the past, the ice in Portland was something different. So the Lexus probably just lost control either coming up that hill or coming out of the garage. If that's where I think it is, that hill is really steep. I could see the driver frantically trying to get a grip on the road as their upward momentum was dropping quickly.

I think the wheel on the ground is a donut. It looks like ones I've seen before.

I have no idea about the truck. Except as a joke. I was going to say that it looks parked, but looking at the photos, it seems that its rear tire hit the curb, which saved the lexus's door. So it wasn't going that fast when it reached that position.

Did you take these photos, or did you just find this flickr set?
posted by Hactar at 9:34 PM on November 23, 2010

Here's my theory. The two downhill vehicles were parked. Evidence: both have more snow accumulation than the Lexus, and the wheels on the uphill car are straight.

The Lexus was driving uphill. The driver veered left (loss of control, swerving to avoid a collision, whatever), striking the corner of the uphill car. Evidence: the most significant damage on the vehicles is between those two, and the uphill car was likely parked and had chains on its tires, so it probably didn't slide downhill.

The Lexus driver opened the driver-side door and got out to assess the damage. The Lexus then slid on the ice, striking the truck and pushing it out of parallel with the curb.

The third step is the weakest. I'm not really convinced that there would be enough torque from the sliding Lexus to knock the truck that far out of alignment.
posted by jedicus at 9:37 PM on November 23, 2010

I'm still thinking about it, but the tire seems to have at least one very plausible explanation: it's the underhung spare tire from the Chevy pickup. At least according to a quick Google, that's the standard location for the spare on that truck, and it's not uncommon for them to drop off in a collision (generally because they've not been secured properly).

Anyway, here's my WAG:

The ground is very slippery/icy (note chains on silver sedan). The silver sedan and blue pickup are both parked, facing downhill, on the side of the street. The gold SUV was proceeding up the hill, no chains. It started to spin out, and the driver reacted poorly and put it into the parked cars, with a fairly good amount of force.

The SUV's left (passenger side) bumper impacted the silver sedan's center grille, although it may have hit slightly off-center from that point and slid (we can't tell from the photo whether the mark on the SUV's bumper is from an old collision or not). It may have hit the side of the blue pickup at the same time; hard to tell. But the important thing to note is that, due to the icy pavement, the final position of the vehicles probably wasn't the orientation they actually contacted each other in. So the SUV could have originally been further up on the curb (with the drivers door unimpinged), and then slid backwards to its final resting position where the door couldn't be closed.

There are some other scenarios that also seem possible, but I think the odd door position is probably due to the cars sliding around after the fact.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:37 PM on November 23, 2010

I'd say watch this video of cars (and a metro bus!) spinning around and losing control on another icy hill in Seattle yesterday and it doesn't take much to imagine how the wreck in your photos played out. Hactor has it correct.

(Most of the time I really miss Seattle, but days like yesterday I am just as happy to be nowhere near it - a lot of drivers there just have no experience driving on ice, and it happens so rarely that they learn the hard way why driving up that hill is a bad idea.)
posted by Lokheed at 9:38 PM on November 23, 2010

POV correction: The SUV's left right (passenger side) bumper impacted...
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:40 PM on November 23, 2010

Not, the exact crash, but an example of how normal rules not applying. Sliding cars in Seattle - 11/22

It isn't unreasonable that the Lexus SUV driver was out of the car with the door open when the car uphill tapped it from wherever it was and it landed where it did. The spare tire was probably there already.
posted by birdherder at 9:42 PM on November 23, 2010

The truck was facing down hill. The Lexus was going up, but began sliding left and back down, towards the truck. The Lexus driver jumped out -- or tried to -- and the car hit the truck with the door open. The car with chains came down the hill from above, failed to slow down and crashed into the Lexus.

The tire looks like the truck's spare, but I don't know how it could have become dislodged.
posted by klanawa at 9:43 PM on November 23, 2010

Agree with jedicus though. The chained car doesn't look like it was on the move. I suspect it, though, because the damage to the Lexus seems more like it would be inflicted by a car coming quickly downhill than one slowly spinning up.
posted by klanawa at 9:46 PM on November 23, 2010

Best answer: I'd guess that the bronze car got stuck on the ice further up the hill, maybe in the intersection, and the driver got out, leaving the door open. Then the gray car came sliding down the hill or around the corner, and collided with the bronze car. Both cars continued sliding down the hill, until they hit the parked truck and stopped. The wheel on the ground may be the truck's spare, which would be stored under the bed. I'm not sure if it's likely or even possible that it would drop on impact, but unless someone propped a spare behind the tire of the bronze car to try to keep that car from sliding further, that's my best guess.

It looks like the chain on the front left tire of the gray car was added after the fact, to try to get some traction and get out of there. It doesn't appear to be fastened completely and there is no chain on the front right tire.
posted by Balonious Assault at 9:48 PM on November 23, 2010

FWIW, here's Google Street View of the location. At that time there was no (legal) parking on that side of the street.
posted by Knappster at 9:51 PM on November 23, 2010

I am not seeing chains on the sedan?

Silver car was parked (note snow under wheel) Lexus came downhill spun out, turned into the spin and ended up facing up hill like the bus in the above video, hitting the front of the silver car. There was enough room that it bumped the truck forward and the spare fell out from under the bed where they live. Then either the passenger got out of the Lexus and shut the door causing the car to slide more downhill until it either got wedged against the truck or the owner of the truck backed the truck against the door and curb to temporarily hold the Lexus in place. When I lived on an icy mountainside we often parked the little truck wedged against the big truck or a tree so it wouldn't slide away when you got out.

I was in Portland and Seattle for the great snow-pocalypse of 2008 and it was scary. People just don't know how to skid* or run themselves off the road ** properly at all!

*turn into the skid!
**before you run an intersection and get t-boned by a metro bus.
posted by fshgrl at 9:57 PM on November 23, 2010

If that Lexus had been riding on Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V1s, or Yokohama Geolandar G072s, this highly entertaining question would never have been asked.

Sadly, Blizzacks are pretty crap on glare ice. Good studded tires or real chains on a really heavy 4-wheel drive vehicle that can cut into the ice and you might be OK. Note I say might. Really you shouldn't be trying to drive up or down hills like this when it's this icy at all, it's just stupid*.

*I live on a hill like this in a cold climate so I get to see lots of stupid.

And isn't that silver car a rear wheel drive anyway?
posted by fshgrl at 10:05 PM on November 23, 2010

I can't solve this mystery, but I can offer a couple observations:

1) The wheel on the ground does not belong to the pickup. It is too small for a pickup truck (pickups have full size spares). My guess would be that it comes from the silver car. It looks to be about the right size and further:

2) the silver car has chains half installed (maybe the chains were underneath the tire in the trunk, maybe the driver was stupidly using the tire as a wheel chock). In any case, he started installing chains on one side and didn't manage to get them all the way on and didn't bother with the other side. The tire has snow on it, so it has been out of the car for a while.

3) The pickup truck has run for a significant period in its current position because there is a large bare patch where the snow has melted from the sidewalk underneath its tailpipe. I don't think the bare patch would extend that far onto the sidewalk if the truck had idled while parked parallel to the curb. I think that eliminates the truck bumped into position possibility (which wouldn't stand up from a physics standpoint anyways).

So why was the truck idling at an angle to the curb like that?

Is it possible that the truck was parked that weird angle intentionally, to avoid blocking the alley or garage entrance visible behind it? Then, the Lexus driver could have hit the silver car, opened the door to get a better look at the situation and then tried to back out, but ended up sliding sideways into the truck.

4) The Lexus has a scuff on its bumper towards the driver's side from where it is touching the silver car. It looks like it bumped the silver car and then later ended up in it's current position.
posted by ssg at 10:16 PM on November 23, 2010

Anecdotally, that's not what I hear.

Studded tires are legal where I live, I have them on my car now. A few years ago I bought Blizzacks and they were definitely not good on the ice. Especially in the very important Keeping the Rear Wheels Directly Behind the Front Wheels while Going Down Hills department. Also stopping. In the end I only kept them for one season. I was bummed because they are a lot quieter and I'd been told they were good on the ice too.

Studded tires are great, although not magical like a lot of people around here seem to think.
posted by fshgrl at 10:55 PM on November 23, 2010

Ice, AWD, and people who either think AWD is the cure for all things that ail, or received a "get out of physics free" card and took it seriously.

Some years ago I was driving through the Columbia River Gorge in December. Freezing rain was main dish for the day, and I was taking it easy, driving about 45mph, in a rear wheel drive car with dedicated snows on. Slow going, but I was having no problems. I was appalled at all of the SUVs and other all wheel drive vehicles I saw overturned, or in the ditch. I saw three folks wreck their vehicles that day(that's not counting the half dozen cars I saw already in the ditch), all were going way too fast for the conditions, and were driving AWD vehicles.

I think some people seriously believe that once they purchase an SUV the gods will forever smile upon them and protect them from all sorts of stupidity, their own included. The only thing I saw more ridiculous than the inclement weather driving skills of many folks in the Pacific NW was the enthusiasm with which drivers in Southern California shot off the roads when it rained. Either way they were driving faster than appropriate for the conditions and well above their skill levels.

I was driving a BMW 540i with Bridgestone Blizzacks all round. Earlier that day I drove through Fourth Of July Pass in blizzard conditions, with at least a half foot of snow on the highway through the pass. I'll grant you nothing is as effective as a set of studded snows, but those tires did a hell of a lot better than I expected they would, and better than any other non studded snows I've used.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 11:14 PM on November 23, 2010

Because google street view indicates the truck wasn't likely parked there in the first place, and ssg makes a compelling case that the wheel doesn't belong to the pickup truck, my revised scenario is that the Lexus and the truck perhaps tangled lightly. A little spin out maybe, little to no impact or damage. Maybe the truck was unable to get up the hill, tried to turn around, and spun into the curb. Then maybe the Lexus came along, and the driver stopped and got out to render assistance. Then the gray sedan slid down the hill, impacting the Lexus and pushing it into the truck. Truck driver said, "I'm outta here." Lexus driver said, "That's a stupid idea. Your rear-wheel drive truck with no weight in the back is at best going to slide down the hill and crash into someone else. And if you leave, my car might slide down the hill too." Sedan driver said, "Here, let me chock your tire with my spare." Everybody said, "That's a stupid idea." But the sedan driver felt bad and did it anyway. Then the cops came, appraised the circle jerk, closed the street, and told everybody to leave their vehicles where they were and deal with it later when the ice melts.
posted by Balonious Assault at 11:26 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because google street view indicates the truck wasn't likely parked there in the first place

I wouldn't put too much stock in that. When it snows in Seattle, parking rules go out the window. A lot of people will abandon their cars anywhere, including the middle of the street, blocking everything, if they feel it has become too dangerous to drive further.

(My assumption is, as suggested, that the door is open because the car was stopped and the owner saw another car sliding slowly down the hill towards them. The sliding car knocked the door-open car into an abandoned truck.)
posted by -harlequin- at 12:39 AM on November 24, 2010

I actually work a block away from Lenora and Western Ave. (where those pictures were taken) and I can confirm that no one should have been parked on that side of the street.

That cobbled stretch of Lenora is treacherous enough trying to drive up it on a rainy day, let alone an unsalted Seattle snow day.

I think Hactar and jedicus' explanations are probably the likeliest ones. My guess is that the initial contact allowed enough space for the door to be opened and the driver to leave. As the car slowly kept sliding into the truck, they interlocked.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:30 AM on November 24, 2010

Having lived a few blocks from this accident site, I will add that at night during Seattle snow storms, these hills are well used by people sledding with whatever they can find. It would not surprise me if the extra tire was an abandoned part of someone's impromptu sled.
posted by nomisxid at 8:04 AM on November 24, 2010

Dasein wrote: "Instead, they thought that tires built for all seasons in California, Texas and Florida would do in all seasons in places that occasionally get snow. Too bad for them."

Good all season tires do just fine in small amounts of snow. It's ice that's a problem, and even then driving with extreme care (or skill) will prevent disaster. In my part of the country, ice storms are a pretty regular occurrence and I have never owned chains or winter tires, yet still manage to get about in the nastiness without slamming into things, whether I'm driving my FWD Accord or my SO's RWD Explorer, but I know how to drive in such weather precisely because I've never been afraid to get out in it.

If it's a two way street, I think the likely order of events is as follows: Truck is descending hill , Lexus attempts to make it up hill after passing the truck, but begins to spin and slide sideways and the driver has the presence of mind (and grip) to stop and gets out to assess the situation. Silver car descends hill into SUV, pushing it into the truck.

There is usually so little friction on ice that even a very low speed collision could have moved the truck that far. I've been in situations where my car began sliding toward the ditch when stopped on ice.

Alternatively, the SUV was descending and managed to get spun around to the same effect.
posted by wierdo at 9:17 AM on November 24, 2010

Blizzak is not a single type of tire. The Blizzak range varies from the most snow-oriented Blizzak Nordic through the capable WS-series to the LM-series which compromises snow and ice traction for better grip on dry and wet surfaces.
posted by Authorized User at 10:19 AM on November 27, 2010

A lot of people, (I dare say most people in the US, but not most Canadians) including folks who live in Seattle, don't get weather cold enough to seriously impact the dry performance of a tire that's been driven a couple of miles.

You live in Toronto, Dasein. It gets cold there. It might get down to zero F once every 5 years or so here, and then only for a day. We consider it unusually cold if we get highs in the 20s where I live.

The point being that you need winter tires where you live. I don't. Few people in the south do. People who live in the western deserts don't, either. Generally, if you live in a part of the continent that gets a lot of snow on a regular basis, it gets cold enough that the rubber compound might matter. If you don't, they won't do you any good unless you're already making a big mistake in being out in weather you can't handle.
posted by wierdo at 10:41 AM on November 27, 2010

Response by poster: Balonius's first explanation seems to be the simplest one that covers everything we see in the scene.

I will print the relevant comments about snow tires, chains, and Keeping Your Ass Off the Goddamn Road Already on some waterproof cardstock and post them in passive-aggressive locations next time it comes up.
posted by 0xFCAF at 7:14 PM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

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