The risks of soft top vehicles – on the road and on the track / proving ground

Aston Martin DBS VolanteWe recently took a call in the CAT office from a client who wanted to share his experience with us for the benefit of all, asking me to write this blog to raise awareness of the potential hazards of driving a Cabrio vehicle with the roof down.

Enjoying a driving tour through the mountains of southern Spain our client drove into a very heavy rain storm and decided to press on without stopping to raise the roof.  The airstream over the car at the speed he was travelling deflected most of the wet stuff over the car and not in the cockpit – very clever – his vehicle must have been designed in a wind tunnel. You’ve already guessed – he wasn’t driving a Caterham!

The rain now more monsoon than heavy shower, he decided to pull over, press the up button and continue.  Just as well as-2 kms further on, negotiating a slow narrow section of road, he drove into and through a landslide. Football sized boulders of mud and rock bounced off of the taught mohair soft top and sadly across the right hand front wing and bonnet of his Aston Martin DBS. Without the roof up, in his words “both he and his wife would have been severely injured”.

With my risk assessed way of life ticking away in my thoughts – I have a question. Are there times when driving, that we should keep the roof up? In my opinion yes… and here’s why.

On the road

If you drive an open top vehicle on the road, It’s important to consider the effects of other road users on your safety and that of your passengers. Skips & builder’s merchants, lorries and dust carts can all present a hazard from falling or untethered loads. Of course, there’s also the cigarette butts flicked out by fellow motorists, which could not only hit you in the face, but could also burn you, your passengers and the inside of your car.

On the track / proving ground

At a recent track day session, I couldn’t help but wince as an R8 roof down passenger and driver bounced around like rag dolls over the high kerbs, out of control as the vehicle spun.  All safe, fortunately, just lots of tyre smoke, but it could have been a lot worse. So what do you need to consider if driving an open top vehicle on a circuit or a proving ground? Here’s a few thoughts…

  • Have you sufficiently secured test equipment? If an engineer is testing a vehicle or you are training with CAT on a Proving Ground, in the event of an accident if the roof is down, your radio (your link with track control and emergency assistance) would probably fall out of your hand and out of the car.  So would the tracker, normally attached by a sucker to the windscreen (your second means of summoning help).
  • If the vehicle rolled, centrifugal force will fire your hands and arms out of the unprotected open top, breaking arms and wrists when you land. Wrist lanyards attached to your seat belt will reduce the movement of your arms and save you from potentially life-changing injuries.
  • Similarly, if you do roll the vehicle, the A-pillar (windscreen) assembly may not be strong enough to support the weight of the vehicle when upside down. It is therefore imperative if driving at high speed or are achieving high cornering forces, that you wear a crash helmet. In a violent accident – if the A-pillar collapsed, there is a real possibility that the metal frame could reach the driver’s or passenger’s head. Structured vehicle crash testing with some vehicles, not all, confirms this.
  • Still on the subject of rolling a vehicle… be aware that fluids from the engine bay are more likely to migrate to the cockpit if you end up on your side or upside down.
  • Don’t forget the elements. Sun can blind drivers via the open top whilst wind noise can reduce communication between driver and passenger. That can be critical at speed.
  • Lastly, loose objects can become lethal weapons. Remove all non-essential items from inside of the vehicle and make sure everything else is sufficiently secured.

It all sounds so extreme but that is the way you must think to maintain safe working practices and write robust risk assessments.

Ask me to drive a soft top at speed, or enjoy a summer’s day drive with the roof down and the answer would be a resounding yes. The same would be true if you offered me a session in a Radical at Silverstone. In fact CAT owns Caterham’s and has owned Boxster’s and Elise’s as training vehicles but both ran hard tops. Hence if you attend a training course with us and ask to drive with the roof lowered, expect a discussion on risk management.

Would I drive these vehicles without considering the potential risks? I spend my professional life expecting the unexpected. For me that’s just common sense. What about you?

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