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Auto-motivated research

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 11 2008

Torching cars, submerging them in water – what’s next, dropping them off a bridge? It’s all in a day’s work for university researchers.

The torchbearers are Simon Fraser University criminologist Gail Anderson and graduate student Stacey McCann; Ms. McCann was conducting the research for her thesis. The two set fire to three cars that contained pig carcasses in their trunks. Dr. Anderson, a world expert in forensic entomology, explains that they were trying to determine whether insects on the burned bodies might help to reveal details of the death.

There was little left of two of the three carcasses, but enough evidence remained to estimate the elapsed time of death, she says. The third carcass was charred, but essentially intact. Dr. Anderson says murderers sometimes torch cars to dispose of the victim. “They think with the fire the body will vanish, but that’s not the case.”

The automobile plungers, meanwhile, are University of Manitoba researcher Gordon Giesbrecht and master’s student Gerren McDonald. They were conducting research on how to escape from sinking vehicles – 350 to 400 people drown each year in submersed vehicles in North America. Volunteers for the study put themselves underwater, either in a laboratory simulator or in an actual car in open water.

If your car ever ends up in a body of water, the most important thing to remember, says Dr. Giesbrecht, is that a typical car will float for a short period – between 30 seconds and two minutes – before it is completely submerged. During this time, you should remain calm, roll down the window and exit the vehicle immediately, says Dr. Giesbrecht, who has done extensive research into human responses to extreme environments. The two researchers are now writing up their findings.

No word yet on dropping cars off a bridge, but no doubt there’s an engineer somewhere looking into it.

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