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June 8, 2011

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Firm guilty over fatal motorsport crash

A champion sports competitor from the Netherlands died in a high-speed crash at a tractor-pulling event in Lancashire, a court has heard.

Jan van Alphen had competed in tractor-pulling events since the introduction of the sport in the Netherlands in 1979, racking up dozens of national and European titles.

On 26 August 2007, he was competing in the Euro Challenge Cup, in Great Eccleston, when the box of weights attached to the trailer he was pulling in his tractor hit the back of his vehicle and crushed it.

The tractors used in the sport bear no resemblance to agricultural tractors. Mr van Alphen’s tractor, Popeye, was powered by three aero engines and competed in the 4.5-tonne modified class. The competition involved tractors pulling a specially-designed trailer, known as the ‘Mighty Challenger’, along a 100m course, during which a box containing weights moves from the rear of the trailer to the front, making it harder to pull.

Preston Crown Court heard that the 58-year-old tractor driver had been pulling the trailer at about 60 miles an hour when its control mechanism failed. Having already brought his tractor to a controlled halt, the 12-tonne box of weights accelerated along the trailer and crashed through safety buffers into the rear of the vehicle.

Mr van Alphen was trapped in the vehicle wreckage for an hour before fire and ambulance services managed to free him. He was airlifted to hospital, where he died from shock and severe crush injuries to his legs.

The HSE investigation revealed engineers from AW Blake Ltd, which owned and maintained the trailer and weight box, had tried to repair a fault in the trailer’s control mechanism on three separate occasions during the previous day of competition. The mechanism should have ensured that the weight box moved up the trailer rails slowly until it reached the buffers. Despite the recurring fault, the trailer was not pulled out of competition.

The investigation also concluded the trailer did not meet the rules of the sport’s governing body, the European Tractor-Pulling Committee (ETPC), or the British Tractor-Pullers Association. Tests showed that the emergency brakes, although fitted, could not stop the weight box quickly enough.

A coroner’s inquest in August 2009 returned a verdict of accidental death. Giving evidence at the inquest, Geoff Frackelton, a specialist engineer with the HSE, said there were three main mechanical failures. The first was in respect of the air-brake system, the consequence of which allowed the weight box to freewheel; the second was that with the loss of air pressure, the box brakes ceased to function; and the third related to the end stops, which he described as wholly inadequate to deal with a flying box.

The coroner, which also criticised the thoroughness of the inspection processes of the ETPC, commented: “In my view, after Mr van Alphen’s death, to operate any sled (trailer) that does not have an end stop whose strength is sufficient to stop a fully-loaded weight box at the maximum speed that the box can attain in the class of tractor-pull, and without wheel-to-box sensors to detect problems, is reckless – both for the sled operator and the organiser of any event. In certain circumstances, this could amount to either corporate or individual manslaughter and, certainly, breaches of health and safety legislation.”

Sentenced on 6 June, AW Blake Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching s3(1) of the HSWA and was fined £20,000, plus £15,000 in costs.

Investigating HSE inspector Liz Evans said: “Mr van Alphen was an experienced tractor-pulling competitor but he lost his life because AW Blake Ltd didn’t do enough to look after his safety. It was given three warnings the previous day that the control mechanism wasn’t working properly, but did not take the trailer out of use at the event.

“The company also failed to follow the guidelines set down by the governing body for tractor-pulling. The motorsport is a potentially high-risk activity and so it’s vital the rules are followed to the letter.”

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