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Impact may have doomed Mercedes, despite safety features

The Mercedes S280 involved in the crash September 1, 1997
Web posted at: 11:21 p.m. EDT (0321 GMT)

From Detroit Bureau Chief Ed Garsten

DETROIT (CNN) -- The specially engineered Mercedes S280 sedan in which Princess Diana and two other people died had at least eight safety systems, reflecting some of the most advanced technologies in the world. Yet Sunday's crash reduced the car to a crumpled, flattened tangle of steel.

On impact, the radiator was shoved back into the front seat. One leading safety expert said the fatal element of the accident may not have been so much the speed of the car, but the angle of impact.

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"One of the impacts was to the roof, and if you're going to have an impact, that's probably one of the last places you want to have a car hit, because the structure there is probably the least able to absorb energy," safety expert Ralph Hoar said.

Quote from Ralph Hoar

All Mercedes S-Class cars have been equipped with front and side air bags as standard equipment since 1996. They also have reinforcement in the chassis, including extra-sturdy roofs to prevent collapse in a normal accident.

The car in which Diana was traveling had front and rear seat belts, although it's unclear whether she and companion Dodi Fayed were wearing them. It might not have made a difference.

"We know that seat belts save lives. We don't know whether in this particular instance, we don't know whether the seat belt would have protected against roof crush. Probably not," Hoar explained.

The car was equipped with air bags, although they only protected those in the front seats. Diana and Dodi Fayed were sitting in the back.

Quote from Mercedes-Benz

One system designed to help, if driver loses control

Other safety features of the S280 include energy-absorbing front and rear sections called crumple zones, anti-lock brakes and electronic traction control.

The S280 also has a sophisticated electronic-sensing system called ESP, or Electronic Stability Program, which monitors wheel speed, and senses what direction the driver wants to steer and the speed at which the car will round a corner successfully.

If the driver is losing control, the ESP will apply the brakes to individual wheels to stabilize the vehicle; it even can automatically adjust the throttle to keep the car on course.

It might be worthwhile for investigators to take a look at the S280 that Diana and her party were riding in.

"Paparazzi and high speed aside, the driver is apparently accustomed to driving under high speeds and under a variety of adverse conditions, and it strikes me as unusual that the vehicle would have gone out of control as it did," Hoar said.

All those safety systems -- yet three lives were lost. Why?

A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz called the crash "catastrophic," too much even for all the car's sophisticated safety systems.

Indeed, Hoar points out that given the suspected high speed of the car before the crash, not even a $100,000 vehicle could guarantee survival.


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