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Subaru Tunnel Escape Deconstructed and Subaru’s Corporate Response

Jim Yu December 4, 2012 The News! 17 Comments

As you may remember, we covered the tunnel-escaping Subaru on Sunday. Thanks to the fact that the owner of the Subaru works for NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, we have a better idea of what he did to save his and his wife’s lives.

First, here is the Sasago Tunnel. The first 30 seconds of this video gives you a good idea of the lay of the land. It’s the ceiling panels that collapsed and fell.

As the driver recounts, upon the first impact by the falling debris, his wife in the passenger seat lost consciousness and was slumped over him, with superficial cuts to her head. He could feel the weight of the concrete on top of and to the side of his car, and he tried with all his might to wrestle and accelerate his car out of the chaos. His car does not have rollbars. He already had momentum/boost going as at the time of the incident, he was passing (to the right, as this is Japan) at around 60 mph (in a 42 mph zone).

Finally, the driver states that after the first and second panels started falling, the rest of the panels fell like a snake.

Subaru Japan’s response to this disaster has been muted and humble: “That the driver narrowly escaped harm has been a silver lining in this tragedy. But we think it only a coincidence that he was in a Subaru.”

Here is a computer animated video of the tunnel. Here is a video of workers inspecting a tunnel with a similar ceiling panel set-up. Each of the ceiling panels weighed a ton. The ceiling panels were last renovated in 1978. Only visual inspections have been performed since. Records do not show the bolts holding the panels ever being replaced, and there are no guidelines for replacing them.

Perhaps our highway engineer commenter from Sunday’s post can shed some light on the cause of the failure.

And here is a glimmer of good news. The Subaru will not be sent to the wrecking yard– it will be repaired! The current owner, who is the second owner, had the car “refreshed” when he purchased it. The Subaru will now be repaired at the same shop.

Images sources: Here, here, here, here.

Again, a big hat tip to my Japanese-reading friend.

  • hwyengr

    The metallurgists are going to, literally, have a field day with this. One of two things likely happened. My best guess is that there was a materials flaw in one or more of the panel supports, and after being subjected to a constant tension load for 30+ years, it finally failed. Once the support snapped, the remaining weight of the ceiling system overloaded the rest of the supports, and the whole thing came down. The other possibility is that the anchor into the tunnel roof pulled out. I feel the cause is going to be more similar to the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis than the Boston Central Artery ceiling panel collapse.

    • I always wondered what that username meant…

  • Preludacris

    I'm glad Subaru has the class not to take any credit for the escape. Prayers going out for those who did not fare so well.

    • Boastfulness is not a Japanese characteristic.


    i wonder why they used an early model 180sx as the model for the simulation.

  • seat safety switch

    Thanks for the update, I'm glad to hear the car is getting fixed up.

    Most of the North American news I can find hasn't done any followup – how are the rest of the tunnel occupants making out?

    • Not well. I believe 9 died, many from burns/vehicle fires.


  • Why in the world would you want to fix that car? It's trashed and there are a bazillion more out there. Salvage the drivetrain, put it in a lemons car and toss the rest.

    • Serin

      Because sometimes sentimental value is worth more than all the money in the world. Thanks to that car, him and his wife were the only people to get out of this disaster alive!

    • It's a limited edition Type RA. Also, Japanese people don't usually keep their cars for more than 5 years. So this car is rare. And finally, some Japanese car nuts are even bigger Hoons than you and me!

  • Van_Sarockin

    Subaru should buy the car and keep it as is. Maybe make some noise about doing an engineering review of its performance. Give the owner his choice of a shiny new car.

    My guess for cause of the accident would be corrosion. Quite likely where the supporting rods or cables attach to the ceil of the tunnel or to the panels. Plenty of opportunities for moisture and condensation. As hwyengr points out above, the panel suspension system can't tolerate more than a few failures in a localized area. Once one of the panels in a linked system breaks free, it becomes progressively more easy for additional panels to break free; particularly if the corrosion is distributed similarly throughout the system.

    • Rover1

      Yeah, but none of the new Subarus are as good.They're certainly uglier and slower.

  • luisthebeast

    And to think, the GD chassis cars are even stiffer.

  • Joe Dunlap

    Im not a structural engineer by any means, but a square tunnel looks like an accident waiting to happen to me. Most are arched for strength. But Im not sayin' I told you so.

    • hwyengr

      The tunnel itself is round, but they build walls and ceilings into it to route and hide the electrical and ventilation systems. The link for the workers inspecting the tunnel, above, shows what's above the ceiling panels.

      • We appreciate your insight. Maybe I'll do more posts about highways, bridges, etc.

  • Mike Y

    I'm all for wanting to fix a car that you survived something like that through

    But i don't see that how that thing can be saved, the unibody is done…