Collapsibility Saving Lives

Periodically, technology brings about modifications in established product or service models, disrupting what society is accustomed to using or accepting as solutions to its needs. One of the most common examples was the transformation in the photography sector with the emergence of digital cameras, which became widespread upon integration into smartphones, enabling users to create photographic files on personal computers or other digital devices. This marked the end of an era dominated by photos captured through plastic negatives with photographic emulsion. Essentially, this evolution led to the downfall of major corporations like Kodak, which went bankrupt in 2012.

This modification is what Clayton Christensen, a Harvard University professor, termed as disruptive technology. It’s defined as anything that breaks away from a previously defined model and proposes significant innovation. Moreover, disruption implies discontinuity in an already established process, not necessarily starting from scratch.

In 2011, the UN, through the World Health Organization (WHO), implemented the first decade of road safety worldwide with the goal of reducing traffic-related deaths by 50%. Today, we’re in the second decade of road safety. Brazil, as a signatory of the UN, also instituted its own road safety decade, prompting various actions in both public and private spheres.

As a result of these actions, in 2016, the Brazilian Association of Technical Standards (ABNT) released the revision of ABNT NBR 15486:2016, breaking a paradigm where all actions involving road infrastructure should prioritize the theme ‘Forgiving Highways.’

In essence, this concept implies that all aspects of roads, urban or rural, in their infrastructure, geometry, operation, etc., must consider preserving the lives of users in the event of an incident.

This standard introduced road safety technologies to Brazil, already adopted since the beginning of the century in European countries and the United States, aligning our country with the logical philosophy that user safety should always prevail. The main recommendations in the standard refer to longitudinal and punctual containment devices, as well as collapsible devices. All of these are meant to be implemented on roads, promoting passive safety to ensure that road infrastructure is always ready for any potential accidents involving users.

One of the standard’s provisions is the use of collapsible devices to mitigate the impact of vehicles on erratic trajectories against sign supports and lighting poles positioned on road shoulders and medians.

In 2016, when the standard revision was launched, the existence of such devices in Brazil was nearly non-existent. The prevailing expectation was the importation of international technology, primarily those designed to shear upon impact on the contact surface with their concrete foundation. In theory, this technology was prevalent as collapsible supports, a concept that gained fame in the United States under the name ‘breakaway.’

A year prior, the company Renova, a manufacturer of supports made from recycled plastic materials, was implanting its products on highways and started receiving reports from clients. When vehicle impacts occurred on their supports, these supports would tip over, and no serious harm happened to the physical integrity of the users involved in these incidents.

Within this new reality, a series of tests with various formulations and product performance were conducted. The results from tests performed in the United States were very encouraging, sparking declarations from important American authorities in highway-related entities. For instance:

“Mike Dreznes – then Vice President of the International Road Federation – Chicago, Illinois, USA – said: ‘Seeing the product and the initial tests, I say that collapsibility will be the ‘breakaway 2.0,’ an improvement in passive safety technology for poles, and that a pole being hit by a car or remaining attached to the bumper delivers a new and much greater dimension of safety.’

“Roger Bligh – then Vice President of the Texas Transportation Institute – College Station, Texas, USA – said: ‘Analyzing the product, I can say that when the collapse performance is proven and certified, it delivers a high-performance passive safety system, with a practical and simple product to work within the field, besides, of course, sustainability.’ (Roger Bligh in the 90s conducted research in the United States on devices made from recycled materials).

The preliminary results and positive statements from these high-ranking international authorities, regarded as references in road safety, led Renova, now renamed as Ecoposte, to conduct further conclusive tests, this time in Italy at the CSI laboratory in Milan. The products were certified, and the company received its CE certification.

This certification opened the Brazilian and international markets, making it the only genuinely national product approved for use on European roads, requiring only the presentation of certification.

Clearly, the emergence of a new product that competes with technical and economic advantages against wooden supports used for decades by Brazilian road management bodies will lead to disruptive evolution in this sector.

An immediate question that arises regarding wooden supports, which some technicians insist on highlighting, is the comparative price between wooden supports and collapsible supports. Simply analyzing the price per linear meter of each product can be misleading.

This analysis may show that wood is cheaper than the collapsible pole. However, if engineering and economics are taken into account, rather than solely comparing acquisition costs, it becomes evident that the collapsible pole is superior in all aspects. It’s truly a disruptive product, which will push wooden supports into a coadjuvant position in road safety or even lead to their exclusion from road applications, as already happens in European countries and nearly all American states.

Even from an economic standpoint, comparing prices between treated wood supports with CCA and collapsible supports, it’s observed that the calculation of the unit price per linear meter of wooden supports doesn’t consider the reverse logistics of the product being sent to a landfill. If this factor is added to the product’s price, there would be no price difference between treated wood and the collapsible support, especially if the implementation of treated wood supports is far from an authorized landfill for their disposal.

Let’s compare some items composing the supports:

  • Comparison of items Ecoposte Wood
  • Device made from recycled products Yes No
  • Tested, approved, and certified collapsible product Yes No
  • Uses chemical elements for preservation No Yes
  • Product has reverse logistics for disposal Yes No
  • Product has flame retardant Yes No
  • Product has a durability of 20 years Yes No
  • Complies with ABNT NBR 15486:2016 Yes No
  • Upon impact, produces penetrating segments No Yes

Additionally, in terms of the chemical treatment of wooden supports to extend their lifespan, most wooden supports in Brazil come from eucalyptus and are primarily treated with CCA – Chromated Copper Arsenate.

Scientific studies conducted by Gosselin; Zagury and Rocha found that the constitution of Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) is concerning due to the high toxicity of its components, which can pose a threat to the environment and health. Another study by Matos (2020) on mice revealed acute toxicity of CCA through exposure evaluated in the kidneys and livers of animals, emphasizing the potential risk of contamination by CCA in vital organs.

The disposal of treated wooden supports in road safety, either due to accidents or structural failure, occurs by burning the product in technically inappropriate locations rather than through a reverse logistics process like that employed for collapsible poles by Ecoposte. When burned, treated wooden supports release toxic chemicals in the atmosphere through ashes. The fly ash and residual ashes produced during combustion may contain significant amounts of arsenic, posing risks of cancers or even death upon human contact.

Countries like Switzerland, Indonesia, and Vietnam have banned the use of CCA, while Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan adopt policies restricting its use. In the UK, it’s permitted with environmental and occupational controls.

In Brazil, there are no restrictions or prohibitions on its use. However, the residues originating from CCA-based preservation processes are classified as hazardous due to their toxic characteristics.

Given these factors and the presence of an environmentally friendly product, there are no plausible reasons for not adopting it as a replacement for the use of treated wood. This substitution is indeed driving disruptive evolution, although a few professionals still insist on adopting wood, which, evidently, for them, constitutes a device with outdated technology that poses dangers to road users and the environment.

Valter Luiz Vendramin, MsC