As James M. Cowley waited for a red light at Seneca and Smith streets, a car smashed into the rear of his van, pushing it into another vehicle.
In the midst of flying glass, his air bag inflated, throwing off a puff of smoke, and his daughters feared that the car had caught fire. While they were screaming, another voice came into the car.
"The dispatcher from the Sheriff's Department started asking if everyone was OK," Cowley said as he recalled the May 8 accident. "She said help is on its way."
Mick Buffum rolled his car over early one morning at Liberia and Two Rod roads in Marilla. He was still hanging in his seat belt when he got a call from a sheriff's dispatcher.
"That made me feel very secure because, once I heard the voice talking to me, I knew I didn't have to panic anymore, and I realized people were on the way to help me," he said.
Buffum and Cowley are part of a federal test being conducted in Erie County.
"Black boxes" were installed in their vehicles to notify emergency services automatically of a crash. The location of the vehicle, determined through Global Positioning Satellites, is transmitted through the 911 system. After transmitting the technical information, the system automatically opens voice communications via a cellular phone so a dispatcher can determine the seriousness of the accident.
"It was incredible how fast they were," Cowley said.
Neither he nor his daughters, Erin, 17, and Meghan, 14, were seriously injured in the crash, which shattered the back window and broke the driver's seat. But firefighters had to use a hydraulic device to free them from the van.
"I'm a firm believer this is a great invention," Cowley said. "I think it would be perfect if it was standard issue in every car. It's such a good use of technology."
The system was designed at Calspan's Advance Technology Center in Cheektowaga, and most of its components were manufactured in Western New York. The Erie County Sheriff's Department, Erie County Medical Center, CellularOne, Datumtech and the state Department of Transportation also are involved in testing it.
The $4 million Automated Collision Notification System project was created with rural accidents in mind. The federal Transportation Department has found that while the majority of miles driven are on urban streets, the majority of fatal accidents occur on rural roads. Factors contributing factors to those deaths include longer response times because of greater distances, delays in notification, greater speeds and lower levels of hospital and prehospital care.
The Transportation Department also notes that 30 percent of deaths occur within minutes of a crash, half of the deaths occur before the victim arrives at a hospital and 70 percent occur within two hours of the crash.
The test, which has been extended for another year, provides a free cell phone, which the owner can keep at the end of the test. Those who work or live within the designated test area east of Transit Road or south of Ridge Road can take part.
The system has been installed in nearly 600 cars, and Calspan is looking for another 400 volunteers.
Volunteers can call 631-4111 or make an application online at www.calspan.com/acn.html.
A control group of about 4,000 vehicles have "crash event timers" that simply record the time of a crash, and the response time is then determined.
"The times of response have varied from a couple of minutes to a half hour," said Bruce R. Donnelly, a Calspan engineer. "The ACN system always gets through within two minutes."
Vehicles equipped with the system have been involved in eight accidents, and it worked in all but one, which occurred in Chicago.
The ACN project has led Calspan into a larger one: the creation of the Center for Transportation Injury Research. The center, being developed by Calspan, the University at Buffalo and Erie County Medical Center, has been allotted $12 million in federal funding over six years.
The center aims to develop information to prevent crashes or reduce their effects such as better training for health responders, and better communication between a crash scene and hospitals.