The crash of Princess Diana

NOTE: I am keeping my original comments to help preserve my thoughts as they happened and not just rewrite the bits I have found to be wrong. As such I have included the date of my writing to give you a timeline of my thinking. Final update was made to the original article 7 December 1997, after which there is a selection of viewer comments as they occurred.

1 September 1997

On 31 August 1997, Princess Diana, her boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed and the driver were killed when their Mercedes Benz SEL 600 crashed head on into an underpass pylon during a high speed chase whilst trying to avoid the paparazzi. Whilst the focus of this tragedy has been on the deaths and the apparent high speeds involved, people have so far accepted the press’s version of events and what actually happened to the car itself. I hope here to shed some light on what most probably happened to cause the deaths, as well as what damage was really done to the car during the accident. The most common misconception stated in the press seems to be that the car did some sort of flip or rollover to crush the roof, and this has led to the press assuming that this may have been how they died.

Whilst at this stage the actual seconds of the crash are still a matter of speculation, I think I can safely say this - the car did not flip over or roll as has been assumed. The fact that the car was removed from the tunnel with its roof inside the car is due to the police and emergency crew cutting the roof off to gain access to the people trapped inside the car, not because it was crushed in as has been stated by the majority of the press. The list of evidence supporting this is as follows - firstly, if you look at photos of the car, you will notice that the roof itself appears to be relatively flat and intact, with some deformation on the driver’s side around the B Pillar, a common sight in offset frontal collision tests, which is essentially what this crash was. Secondly, the A Pillars (front windscreen) are relatively upright, as well as the left B Pillar and both rear C Pillars. The right B Pillar is missing because it has been cut away, evidenced by the straight nature of the cuts in the metal. This is also seen on both A Pillars and to some extent on the C Pillars, although it looks as though at that stage the roof may have been peeled back as well as being cut (probably last). Thirdly, look at the doors. They are all upright and not bent inwards, as would be the case if the roof had collapsed inwards. Indeed, the rear right door still has its glass intact, which would hardly be the case if it had been bent by roof pressure. Further evidence suggesting the car didn’t roll is that pictures of the roof show no paint missing from impacting on a surface such as the road or walls, nor any deformation as would be the case if it had rolled over. Eventually photos will probably be released of the crash prior to emergency services getting there which will prove that the roof structure was largely intact, and that the whole cabin area retained its shape extremely well under the circumstances. Evidence of this can be seen in some photos where the rear right door has clearly been manually opened to assist those inside, as well as the largely intact shape of the other doors. Also testament to Mercedes’ strength is the dash area which appears to have survived remarkably well considering the apparent force of impact.

It is my estimation that neither Diana nor Dodi were wearing seatbelts, and that this was the major factor that led to their deaths. The fact that Diana’s bodyguard survived in the front seat suggests that the impact was not so excessive as to imply certain death for all occupants. Indeed, given the massive internal volume of the Mercedes S Class, and its highly efficient safety cage, had they all been wearing seatbelts it is highly likely that the belt force alone would not have killed them. Certainly the forward motion of Diana and Dodi would not have brought them into contact with the seats in front of them. The fact that the front passenger has survived is probably attributable to the following points - he was on the side of the car opposite that which bore the brunt of the impact, he may have been wearing his seatbelt which would have meant he received the proper protection of the airbag/belt/pre-tensioner system, and he was probably the fittest of the occupants, being a bodyguard.

If this tragic crash has a lesson that should come out of it, it should be that had they worn their seatbelts, they would have most probably survived. Mercedes build the world's safest cars, and the crash is ample evidence of their strong commitment to excellence in safety. However, if the car's occupants don't avail themselves of this technology, then they do not receive the rewards it brings in the form of saved lives and less trauma. Mercedes should be applauded for building a car that withstood an impact probably in excess of 120kmh with very little cabin deformation, and which would have saved more lives had the occupants used the full gamut of safety technology incorporated in the car.

3 September 1997

By now several facts have come to light regarding this crash. The most unexpected by far is the fact that the driver had over three times the legal limit of alcohol in his system. My god, how did this man get to be in charge of driving a limousine for such important people?! Photos have now emerged which I'm happy to say confirmed my earlier statements on the roof, and that it really was intact before it was subsequently cut off by rescue crews, testament to the car's strength for such an apparently high speed collision.

It has also been revealed that the car was in fact an armoured car, built by Mercedes, which I guess would strengthen it a bit compared to the standard model, but I don't think this would have made too much difference in crash performance. Also, it seems the car did not roll over as originally thought by the press. There is still some confusion as to exactly what model of S Class the car was, some press reports indicate it was an SEL 280, although I would have thought an armoured car would use the most powerful engine it could, the SEL 600. We will have to wait and see. As far as I am aware from various news reports, it was also confirmed that the only person wearing a seatbelt was in fact the bodyguard, so I'm happy there too, although one person e-mailed me saying that Dodi was in the front passenger seat and not the guard. I will dispute this here as I have seen other reports showing positions of all occupants, and besides, they were close friends, weren't they? Don't you think they would have wanted to be together after a nice dinner?

The exact speed still seems to be conjecture, with various media reports saying 120mph, 120kmh, 196kmh, 0kmh all on the clock after the accident. I think we can safely assume that it was in excess of 100kmh, but even at that "slow" speed according to reports the Mercedes held up far better than any other car I have ever seen in a high speed crash, especially considering the force was concentrated in a small area, not the whole front of the car! Some people have also e-mailed me with regard to being just an advertisement for Mercedes, to them I respond: Yes, I love Mercedes. I also love SAABs, which as you can see is actually a home page subject of mine. What I am more interested in though is general car safety standards, and as I see it, Mercedes acquitted themselves extremely well in this particular crash, and that had they been wearing seat belts, they probably would have survived (the driver having the least possibility of survival). Mercedes SHOULD be proud of their cars, and this crash should in my opinion be used to that end, not as a source of embarrassment for them.

8 September 1997

The funeral is over, and a few more facts have come to light. The car appears to be badged as an S 280, as several sources have told me. My earlier speculation that it was an S 600 are predicated on the fact that to move an armoured car at high speed to get away from a terrorist situation, you would want the biggest engine you could get under the bonnet. Just a theory here, but maybe it was badged as an S 280 to disguise the fact it was an armoured car....

The occupants were in the following positions - Henri Paul was the driver (left hand drive car), Trevor Rees-Jones (the bodyguard) was in the front passenger seat wearing his seatbelt, Princess Diana was in the right back seat, and Dodi Al-Fayed was in the left back seat.

It seems increasingly likely that the impact speed was not all that great compared to initial media speculation. In fact, as mentioned below in a couple of e-mails, the speed was more than likely in the 50 - 70 mph range, far less than originally thought and more consistent with the amount and type of damage done. There would not have been any skid marks as the car is fitted with an ABS system, and probably traction control as well. Recently released video footage from the Ritz hotel shows Mr Paul arriving and departing in a calm manner with no paparazzi in evidence, leading many to speculate that he was not drunk as has been reported. Whilst the Al-Fayed family spokesperson has suggested that the tests were inaccurate, I do not doubt that Mr Paul was over the legal limit. We probably all know of those who can "hold" their drink and purport not to be drunk, but alcohol can have more subtle effects such as slower reaction time, a euphoric state of well-being, bravado and an inability to concentrate on the task at hand. All of these factors could have played a role in Mr Paul's apparent inability to control his vehicle whilst perhaps appearing normal to the bodyguard whose job it was to make sure his charges were protected.

11 September 1997

It was revealed today in the press that the driver, Henri Paul, had two anti-depressant substances in his blood stream as well as 0.18% alcohol, the effects of which would have been greatly magnified when combined together. Police are also investigating a piece of a side mirror apparently found some distance BEFORE the crash scene, leading them to speculate that the car may have clipped one of the motorcycles of the paparazzi or some such occurence before the car went into the tunnel. Also, it is being said that the police have some photographs taken of the car before the collision showing Mr Paul apparently blinded by a paparazzi flashbulb, with motorcycles also in the picture, lending credence to the argument that the paparazzi indeed hounded them during that fatal ride.

17 September 1997

New today is that Trevor Rees-Jones is now conscious, and that police are anxious to hear his version of events to corroborate much of the speculation as to what factors actually caused the crash. The picture of Henri Paul's life continues to get worse, although this is probably driven in part by media speculation as much as what may really be factual, although it seems likely that he was a regular heavy drinker, even though friends say he was able to contain his alcohol extremely well. We now have to hear Mr Rees-Jones' version of what occurred to see how much of the crash can be attributed to Mr Paul. Also revealed was that police are trying to find a car that may have hit the Mercedes seconds before the fatal collision, noting that there is a small impact mark on the side of the car's front, and some indicator glass around the fourth pillar which may show that another collision could have caused the crash.

7 October 1997

Trevor Rees-Jones went home a few days ago, however he still requires further cosmetic surgery to his face before he will be 100% again. He does not remember much of the events leading up to the crash, however it is worth noting here that he was walking and talking, with only his arm in a sling when he was seen on the TV news. Considering he was in the front seat, closer to the impact point, I have to state here that I firmly believe that Diana and Dodi would be alive today had they worn their seatbelts too.

7 December 1997

It has been a couple of months now since I last altered this page, the investigation is now focussing on a second car, believed to be a Fiat Uno, which seems to have been involved in the collision and then sped off. There have been lots of theories on the news about assassination attempts, and at least one of these is being considered which involves a small car deliberately hitting a larger one in such a way as to deflect it just enough to cause an accident. Of course this is by no means proven, but it is the most plausible theory if you can consider any of them plausible at all, which I don't at this stage. I t does beggar the imagination as to why no Uno has been turned in or found though.... I will not update this page again until the final report is released, but feel free to continue sending your ideas to me via e-mail and I will incorporate them when I can.

Wear your seatbelt - without it the car will not save you as the designers intended.

Buy a safe car, not one that just promises to be safe. Reputations in safety are earned, not advertised.

Some e-mail comments I have received, both good and bad....

[ My own comments are in bold like this ]

Your observations are spot on.  The fact of the right front passenger surviving, with his seat belt on, attests to the fantastic structural integrity of this non-racing automobile. I also agree that the Princess and her companion could and should have had a better than 50-50 chance of survival as well with their seat belts on. Without I am surprised that Diana made it as far as she did given the time of extrication. I appreciate your most learned comments.

[ from a race car rescue physician! ]

hey idiot, it was a S 320!!!!! Get the facts straight before opening your modem.

[ I don't know what car model it was, says so above! It also appears that the car was an S 280, so I guess all sides should make sure of their facts before they damn the other.... ]

So we can iron out the model of the car already:

Stuttgart, September 1st

The Daimler-Benz Group offered to assist Paris police on Sunday by providing a team of experts to help investigate the accident that claimed the lives of Princess Diana, Dodi al-Fayed and their driver. Contrary to previous reports, the vehicle involved in the accident was not an S 600, but an S 280.  However, the safety concept in both vehicles is identical. At present, Daimler-Benz only  has access to information from the media, which is why a statement pertaining to the accident is not possible at this time. Irrespective of this, safety experts classify this type of accident, i.e. a head-on collision with  an immovable obstruction at high speed, as "catastrophic". According to all currently available information, that appears to be what happened in this case because the media is reporting that the vehicle was traveling at extremely high speed. An accident of this type releases immense forces of inertia which  are several times higher than the design limits for all vehicles or mandatory safety guidelines around the world.

[ One of several e-mails mentioning the car is an S 280. I'm going to run with that for now. If the crash was "catastrophic", why did the bodyguard live with a seatbelt on? Food for thought.... ]

Part I - Given the limited information available, I have to tell you that I think your hypotheses on the circumstances of the crash are quite sound. That Mercedes hit something solid, and hit it HARD. I have yet to hear whether or not there were skid marks leading to the point of impact (indication that the driver had applied the brakes prior to impact), but then again, we're dealing with the celebrity press here, not the NTSB (or French equivalent thereof). That the driver's blood-alcohol content was several times the legal limit beggars the imagination. Ultimate responsibility for this accident will almost certainly come to rest on the driver of the Mercedes, and the people who employed him.

Part II - Doh!  It occurred to me that a shiny new Mercedes is sure to have ABS, so no skid marks on the pavement. I'm sure Mercedes engineers could take one look at those photos and tell us how fast the car was going (assuming the object struck was a concrete pillar), and I'm just as sure that the Mercedes lawyers have told them all to keep their mouths shut.

[ I agree totally, especially regarding Mercedes' lawyers. ]

I believe you are the one who has written his opinions on the Mercedes Benz Diana died in.  I'm happy to see there are other people out there who were hurt not only that Diana died, but that she died in a Benz.  I love Mercedes.  I've just bought my first one.  I waited my whole life for it.  I was a bit disappointed until I began hearing of the neglect with which they were riding in the car.  I always tell my wife and kids, it only works if you use it right. This has upset them because I don't allow my wife or kid too close to the steering wheel or dashboard to prevent airbag impact.  I make them wear their belts, keeping tire pressures accurately at all times, and driving with their lights on all the time. I'm happy you set up this page.  I was really feeling bumbed about the accident.  My friends kept picking on me that maybe I should have gotten another Honda.

[ Well done! To his friends - good luck to you in your Hondas when you hit something.... ]

....oh yeah, to those on the Honda and Toyota camps, if Di and her friends were riding in one of the above mentioned cars, I think there would've been one funeral, 4 bodies and one casket....

[ A follow up e-mail to the one above which is very true, unfortunately. ]

I beg to differ with you on your thoughts listed on the web page referring the crash info. You must have written it early during this time as the news has reported the "facts" much differently from what you listed. First of all, the bodyguard who survived so far was NOT in the front right seat. He was in the rear seat with Di. Dody was in the front right seat and was killed by the crush of the engine. The radiator was in the lap of the driver. The speed they were traveling was not 121 kph, but the conversion was listed as 121 mph. I heard it was something like 196 kph??? Please adjust the incorrect info you are spewing to the world in a sheer veneer of an ad for Mercedes.

[ Yes, all views are accepted here, even those that turn out to be incorrect! I don't know about "spewing" though.... ]

Congratulations on your page regarding the 600 SEL. My thoughts exactly.

[ Praise is always nice of course, but I also get bad mail too.... ]

You're a SICK BASTARD!!! Have you no feelings for the British People. God will strike you down!

[ Perhaps this is why the media stopped short of admiting it was partly Diana and Dodi's fault for not wearing their seatbelts. Still, this is an impartial response area so I'm putting it in for balance! ]

I am English, and do not think you are a sick bastard (I think the one who wrote that should try thinking a bit) I was very interested in your comments on the crash, I am not a Merc owner but do like them, however I have no idea how they compare statistically in crashes to other current cars. I think your comments especially on the seat belts and on the crap media, were absolutely correct. (Aside....  As for it being a tragedy, well to me anyone being killed is so, and for example the death of Mother Teresa is much more of a loss to good causes than this death) Anyway I hope one day the details will be a bit better reported, although somehow I doubt it.

[ Statistically Mercedes Benz build THE world's safest cars. It is a fact. The current model E-Class is THE SAFEST CAR IN THE WORLD, and I'm a devoted SAAB fan! But the proof is in the crash tests and real life safety history of this tremendous automobile. 'Auto Motor und Sport' crashed one in an offset 64kmh collision against a SOLID concrete barrier (no deformable section to simulate another car) and recorded the lowest crash forces ever. Afterwards the electric windows and sunroof still worked! ]

Your points are right on.  As an owner of Mercedes who has survived a high speed  crash I agree wholeheartedly that had they been wearing seat belts those back seat passengers would be alive today.  I do disagree with the speed reported.  The speedometer stopped is not proof of actual speed.  I believe they were probably going between 65 and 85 MPH.  At 120MPH the car would have blown apart despite being a Mercedes.

[ Given the amount of crash damage and the fact that the ENTIRE passenger cabin was not deformed, I have to agree here and have consequently revised the estimate of impact speed to be around 70 mph or 110 kmh. ]

I applaud your very sound observations regarding the crash of Princess Diana's Mercedes.  I'm an automotive safety engineer, and although I do not work for Mercedes, I have witnessed crash tests of Mercedes vehicles, and I am familiar with Mercedes' body structures and safety systems. I hope I can lend some support and corroborating evidence to some of your observations:

(1) There certainly was no rollover.  There wasn't even a partial rollover.  (Many newspapers report that the vehicle rolled 90 degrees, with the roof impacting the wall.)  Photographic evidence is available to prove the point that the tops of the pillars were cut by rescue personnel, not deformed during the crash.  The German newspaper Bild published a photo (available on the internet -- no victims are visible in the photo) showing the rear of the vehicle soon after the crash.  In this view, the roof, C-pillars and rear glass are all fully intact and appear undamaged.

(2) The speedometer being "frozen" at 121 mph (or rather the km/h equivalent) is highly unlikely.  The speedometer is electronic.  When power is cut, the speedometer returns to zero. Judging by vehicle deformation from impacting of a non-deformable pillar, I believe that the impact speed has been greatly overestimated by many.  I'd expect it to be in the 50-70 mph range.  Lower than 50 mph might even be possible.  Pole-type impacts always have the most dramatic-looking deformation relative to the actual accelerations experienced by the occupants.

(3) Seating Positions:  It's well established at this point that the bodyguard was in the right front seat, wearing a seat belt.  Mr. Fayed was in the left rear seat, and the princess was in the right rear seat.

I think the most ridiculous explanation of the crash I've seen is one in which the vehicle impacts a pillar, then skids on its side so that the roof impacts the wall, then the vehicle somehow bounces upright again to hit another pillar.  I've seen every possible combination of impacts reported:  pillar-wall-pillar, wall-pillar-wall, wall-pillar, pillar-wall, with various rollovers between the impacts. I've been shocked and dismayed by the misinformation being reported by reputable news organizations regarding this crash.  Yours is the first reasonable voice I've heard on the dynamics of this crash. Let's hope the major news agencies get this story right eventually. Makes you wonder how many other facts the news agencies get wrong on a regular basis, doesn't it?

[ Perhaps the media should take an objective look at the crash with a safety engineer in tow and report the proper facts, then maybe the world will remember to buckle up instead of thinking that not even a Mercedes will save them so why bother? ]

I think media sensationalized (again) the events of the crash - letting people think that the car turned turtle or whatever, more than what simply happened.  Thank you for the information.  I was thinking the worst when I read the papers.  It pays to wear seatbelts.

[ Click clack front 'n back! - Australian seat belt advertisement. ]

I learned a long time ago, as a spectator of racing, that there is no, repeat - no, substitute for belts and a safety cage, which seems to have worked quite well in this case. It seems to me that there was a good possibility of both Dodi and Diana walking away after some minutes of shock recovery. I wonder how much of the bodyguard's injuries are due to Diana's slamming into the back of his seat. You become a projectile if you do not belt in!

[ A very valid point and one that applies equally to objects on your back parcel shelf or in your boot, such as dogs etc. Remember, at just 10 G's deceleration everything weighs ten times as much when it hits you. Crash forces are much higher, so that toy on the back shelf can kill you in an accident.... ]

I think you have done a good job on your website.

[ Thankyou. ]

The drivers alcohol level, if proven, must be the main cause of the accident. I am not a crash expert but it is obvious the car approached the tunnel at very high speed and the first impact to the right hand wall approaching the tunnel was obviously very hard judging by the marks left on the wall. Is it possible that this impact activated the air bags and hence caused the final impact? One other important point. Unprotected pillars of this nature, in a tunnel on a curving road, are just waiting to kill. They should have been designed out (replaced by a wall) or protected by a safety barrier. Too late but perhaps the authorities will take note. This was a preventable accident - it should never have happened.

[ The first paragraph raises an interesting issue - did the initial side wall impact activate the airbags and thus cause the loss of control? It may go some way towards explaining how Mr Paul ended up going through the windshield and how Mr Rees-Jones received such severe facial injuries. At this stage I will say that they did NOT activate on the initial side impact, since I doubt the deceleration would have been in the right direction and force to activate the front airbags. The side airbags if fitted may have been activated though.... ]

Your web page is great, is good to see some sane information exchange for a change... For last if any of you people out there thinks questions about Lady Di's death is a show of disrespect - I don't think so. It's very easy to label people who don't happen to agree with the so called Politically Correct mainstream, but have they always told us (the people) the TRUTH ? Again I DON'T THINK SO.

[ This goes for all people who do not just regurgitate media info but instead put forth their own views. Opinions SHOULD be encouraged, because without them you are basically living in a Communist society. Just look at how many ideas have come to me via e-mail that I didn't think of. Where would we all be without them? ]

I think you are a sick sick person. Honda is a very responsible choice of automobiles. You may say that they would fold upon impact, but you never would get stuck in one. Why don't you read consumer report and learn how to be a decent citizen. I am a proud owner of a Honda CR-V sport utility vehicle.

[ Misplaced pride is my opinion. Never get stuck in an accident if you drove a Honda? Wouldn't that be nice! Imagine that, a guarantee that "This car will never be involved in a crash". Yes, that WOULD make it the safest car in the world. But in the real world crashes happen in ALL makes of car. Better to be in a safe one I say, and for God's sake, WEAR YOUR SEATBELTS PEOPLE!!! United States citizens take note! ]

To whoever dissed the Hondas, chech the crash test specs dumbass - Hondas are far superior, hell they might have all lived.

[ This is the last post I am putting up for the Honda faction in the interests of objectivity. My opinion is that Hondas are not anywhere near as safe as Mercedes, and there this particular issue will lie. ]

Thanks for the well of information I have found on this page - not only from the author, but also from all the e-mails that have been sent in.

[ Keep sending them people, your opinions are important and often present new ideas and facts. ]

About two years ago my brother's wife and two of their children were in an auto crash.  One person died, one was seriously life-long injured, and the third had a couple of bruises.  One of them was wearing a seatbelt. The other two weren't. Guess which of the above three passengers was wearing the seatbelt.

I find myself nearly foaming at the mouth about the focus on the driver, press, or the car.  The focus should be on the passengers not wearing seatbelts.  It is the one thing that a passenger can control.  You can't control a situation where a drunk driver in another car hits your car. You can't control the bad driving of sober drivers in other cars. You can't always control the state of your car's "health". But you can control wearing a seatbelt.

My brother will now be raising his five daughters by himself. Their mother is dead.  One of their sisters is permanently and severely injured. The other passenger/daughter will likely feel quilty for the rest of her life.  She was also the driver. Everything about the car, the accident, the this, the that, is of interest to me as an engineer.  But as a human being the focus has to get back to what was most likely the cause of death: no seatbelts.  The accident didn't kill them (except for the driver, probably), no seatbelts killed them.

[ A very sad lesson to all, PLEASE wear your seatbelts! If not for yourself, then for your children. ]

I think it only fair when describing the safety issues of wearing seatbelts, that other factors must be described.

1-  That the vehicle have built in stress and safety measures to reduce intrusion.

2-  That individuals not be told that they are indeed safe primarily because of seatbelts.  It gives a false sense of security.  One that is the reality, not sales gimmicks.

My daughter who lies semi-comatose yet today, after seven plus years of having an accident, is a practical reason for looking into more than just the value of seatbelts by themselves.  They are only part of the answer, and in some cases, as with my daughter, perhaps and almost assuredly the cause of her injuries.   To truly be honest and fair with people when pushing the seat belt issue, you must first consider the above and a whole miriad of other important issues. I personally despise and condemn ALL who insist and give false claims to the value of seat belts.

[ A counter to the message before it, sadly true nonetheless. Seatbelts DO save many more lives than they take, however occasionally it is the seatbelt itself that does the damage. I for one will always wear my seatbelt, knowing that without it you are far more likely to survive than be killed because of it, especially when used in conjunction with airbags and modern pre-tensioning devices. Why not check out my safety essay which covers seatbelts as a detailed issue here? ]

Great page thanks. I've been wondering, what's the effect (benefit or danger) of the added armour? The armour is bullet proof (protecting) not necessarily crash proof (protecting). The extra weight must put added stress ( momentum proportional to mass x velocity-squared or some such) on all the normal M-B safety features. Agree? Would they have been better off in a normal weight car?

[ Interesting question, which probably only Mercedes can answer for certain, but they are unlikely to. ]

Factual and interesting, your page presents an intelligent analysis of the tragedy. Those that ridicule you, simply do not understand.

[ Ridicule is often used when people don't or won't understand your point of view. Remember that people were once ridiculed for saying that the Earth was not flat but round.... ]