Death of UofT student prompts inquiry

The Queen’s solar car team was forced to cut their cross-country tour short.
The Queen’s solar car team was forced to cut their cross-country tour short.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of queensu.ca

An accident on Aug. 12 involving the University of Toronto solar car that claimed the life of driver Andrew Frow has sparked a review of the safety and operating procedures for the Queen’s Solar Car Team.

Dean of Engineering Tom Harris told the Journal he is putting together a panel of analysts from outside of the University to study the team’s policies.

“Our response to [the accident] is that I am getting some names together to get an independent analysis of safety,” he said. “We’re going to look at issues associated with design and evaluation.

“It would be foolish to think we couldn’t learn something,” Harris said.

The University has not yet obtained the results of the police investigation into the accident, which occurred during a Cross-Canada tour on Highway 7/8 outside the Kitchener area. Frow’s vehicle swerved across the highway, smashing into a mini-van.

Solar car teams from Queen’s, McMaster University, McGill University, École Polytechnique de Montréal and École de Technologie Supérieure were also participating in the tour, which was cut short as a result of the accident. The purpose of the tour was to promote energy conservation in the wake of the blackout last summer.

Jessica Whiteside, acting associate director of news services for the University of Toronto, said the university will be conducting its own review of the circumstances surrounding Frow’s death.

“The parameters haven’t been set,” Whiteside said. “It won’t be focusing on the accident itself but on broader related issues such as how safety is assessed.”

Whiteside said the solar car team’s future is undetermined.

“Anything about the team’s future would be speculation at this point,” she said. “It is a student-run organization.”

Dr. Stephen Harrison, faculty advisor for the Queen’s Solar Car Team, said the risk associated with the Solar Car Tour must be considered.

“There has to be a measure of balance as to what we can learn and can this be done to a level that is reasonable,” he said. “If it can’t, we’ll take appropriate steps, which could mean taking vehicles off the road.”

In an e-mail to the Journal, David Nam, managing director of the University of Toronto Solar Car Team, said it was important to remember that solar cars are experimental vehicles.

“There are many lessons for all that must be learned and acted upon from the tragic accident that took the life of Andrew Frow,” he wrote. “It is also important to understand the experimental component of solar cars ... these vehicles are designed and constructed in the pursuit of expanding knowledge.

“They are driven on public roads to further society’s understanding of alternative energy technology,” Nam said.

Harrison compared the result of a crash between a solar car and a larger vehicle to that of a motorcycle and a car.

“Because of their weight, there are situations where they’re going to get into a collision with a heavier vehicle,” he said. “Had this been a motorcycle the result would have been the same.”

Harris said he was confident every precaution had been taken to ensure the safety of the Queen’s team on the cross-country tour. A safety review was conducted before the team participated in the tour.

“The car was inspected by the same standards used for international [solar vehicle] events,” he said. “There was a member form the American Solar Car challenge and a representative from the Ministry of Transportation [who] reviewed processes and procedures.

“We felt we had undertaken due diligence for the students,” Harris said.

The solar cars participating in the tour received special permits from the Ministry of Transportation allowing them to travel in light-traffic areas.

Harris expressed concern about allowing solar cars to travel on public roads during rush hour.

“In the end, the question that sticks out in your mind is ‘did rush hour contribute to this?’” he said.

Harris said the Queen’s team had pulled off the highway prior to the accident.

“People were traveling at 80 kilometers an hour and we were traveling at 70,” he said.

The independent panel that will assess the safety of the Queen’s solar car and the team’s procedure and policies will put together a list of questions relevant to the team’s safety.

“The committee I will put together will say, ‘these are the questions I would like you to respond to’ and based on our answers they will make some recommendations,” Harris said.

The same questions will be posed to other competitive teams in the Engineering faculty, though independent reviews for other teams will not be undertaken, he said.

“Ultimately, the end will be risk assessment on every event we undertake,” Harris said. “The review will be a jumping off point for other competitive teams such as the Baja car and the SAE [formula race car] Team.” The findings from the independent review conducted by Queen’s will be shared with the other universities on the tour.

Both Harris and Harrison expressed shock and sadness at Frow’s death. Harris said the Queen’s team was greatly saddened.

“The teams know one another,” he said. “They all share this passion around solar energy and it hit them pretty hard.”

—With files from The Toronto Star

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