TAMPA — Capt. Clint Roberts makes his living cutting accident victims out of hideously mangled vehicles, but even he could hardly believe it when two people in a 2007 mid-sized car survived a head-on crash with a full-sized pickup last year.
The Ford Fusion's reinforced steel construction probably saved the lives of the 18-year-old driver and his 16-year-old passenger. But Roberts said it gave his Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crew fits as they tried to free them last November.
Because hydraulic cutters couldn't shear the roof posts, rescue workers had to turn to heavy-duty electric saws, replacing blade after blade as they dulled on the rugged material.
"It was just beating the snot out of the tools," Roberts said, adding minutes and delaying medical treatment.
There is no question today's cars save lives by cocooning motorists in reinforced alloys, impact-absorbing crumple zones and as many as a dozen air bags.
But in interviews with the Associated Press, rescue officials and experts from around the United States said the new technology is also hindering extrication of injured people, increasingly forcing crews to work deeper into the critical "golden hour" between accident and treatment by emergency room doctors. On many 2005 and later cars, an extrication that once took 10 or 15 minutes can now take twice that or longer.
To catch up, counties and cities are spending tens of thousands of dollars — if they can afford it — to buy more powerful equipment that can cut through newer cars' reinforced steel and the lighter, tougher exotic metals used in roofs, posts and doors.
Then there are obstacles that endanger rescuers' safety. Pressurized gas canisters that inflate air bags can explode if pierced by cutting tools. Rescuers can be blown from cars when air bags suddenly inflate. Hidden battery cables in hybrid cars can deliver a powerful shock.
To protect themselves, workers now have to peel away the ceiling and interior plastic to see what's underneath before they can even start cutting.
Experts cannot say for certain whether the delays in getting these victims to the hospital have resulted in people dying. But that's the fear.
Leading hydraulic-tool makers such as Hurst Jaws of Life — whose namesake George Hurst introduced the first hydraulic extrication tools for auto racing in the early 1970s — must keep putting more oomph into their equipment, making it heavier and more expensive. A single Hurst cutter and power unit runs about $25,000. Add hydraulic spreaders and other tools, and the price rises quickly.
The flip side, of course, is that more people are surviving horrific crashes that would have killed them just a few years ago.
With about three people hurt in car crashes every minute in the United States, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson said he is comfortable with the trade-off. Rescue workers, he said, will have to work harder to keep up with technology, just like everybody else.
"The fatality rate for passenger vehicles is the lowest in history," Tyson said. "That, to me, is a pretty good news story."
Automakers say they are doing more to make safety information available to rescuers and toolmakers before new models come out. For instance, Ford is already offering a look at the skeleton of the 2009 F-150 pickup, built with the strongest steel construction the company has ever used.
"We want to facilitate the discussion as much as possible, because we understand the critical nature of their work," Ford spokesman Wesley Sherwood said.