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First do no harm: a better way to rescue crash passengers

Andrew Gerbich's Car Spreader offers a less destructive alternative to the Jaws of Life.

andrew gerbich car spreaderAndrew Gerbich's Car Spreader offers a less destructive alternative to the Jaws of Life.

As engineer Andrew Gerbich says, you don't really want to injure people while you're trying to rescue them. Avoiding this less-than-ideal scenario is one of the selling points of the 'Car Spreader', a hydraulic rescue tool he's designed that would offer an alternative to the 'Jaws of Life' currently used to cut passengers out of vehicles in the event of a car accident.

“Car versus object impacts tend to bend the vehicle around a roadside installation such as a power pole, leaving the driver and any passengers trapped inside," he explains. And while disassembling a car using the Jaws of Life works, it can be dangerous for both the passengers and the rescue team.

"Another problem is that modern cars are made from stronger steels and can contain high current electrical cabling and airbag propellant tanks which can make it unsafe for first responders to cut a car apart.”

In contrast, the Car Spreader straightens bent steel; the idea is to return it to its original shape.

andrew gerbich car spreaderGerbich says his boss at Pukekohe company Belcher Industries, a mechanical engineer with experience with the fire service, saw the potential for a machine like this. Gerbich got to work, designing and building the prototype as part of his placement and engineering degree.

After initial trials on steel beams, the spreader – which is centred around a powerful hydraulic ram – was tested on a Ford Telstar sedan that had recently been in a side-impact collision.

“The machine was fixed to the side of the vehicle as it would be used in service ... The force pushed the left and right pillars backward, whilst pulling the centre of the car outward as expected.”

He says testing showed the pressure required to bend a car was significantly lower than the limits of the machine, so future prototypes could potentially be produced using smaller components and lighter materials.

"What we've got right now is proof of concept - we proved that you can actually bend a car like we wanted to. The problem was we didn't know how strong a car's chassis is when you apply those kinds of forces."

Having just finished his degree at Waikato University, Gerbich's officially job hunting, with an eye on landing work in the automotive industry (though he admits it's a pretty limited field in New Zealand). For now, he's wrapping up a couple of other projects at Belcher and says he may work on further developing the Car Spreader later down the track.