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An obscure E.U. regulation may have saved lives in the Berlin Christmas market attack

Authorities examine the truck that plowed into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin. (Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse)

The truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last week may have been cut short when the truck automatically deployed its brakes, the result of European Union regulations that require automatic braking systems on large trucks.

The new detail, revealed jointly by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and broadcasters NDR and WDR on Tuesday, may explain why the truck came to a stop after a few hundred feet. In the end, twelve people were killed in the attack, but there are indications that the E.U.-mandated advanced emergency braking system may have prevented more deaths.

It was previously thought that Lukasz Urban, the Polish truck driver whose vehicle had been hijacked, may have fought with the attacker in the moments before the rampage. Urban had been shot, and investigators suggested that the truck’s erratic path indicated a struggle in the cabin.

In response, a British truck driver launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Urban’s family, gathering more than $210,000. There were also calls for the Polish driver to receive a Federal Cross of Merit, an honor given out by the German government. But the German newspaper Bild later reported that a forensic examination showed that Urban had in fact been shot in the head between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., several hours before the attack began. Though Urban may have still been alive as the attack took place, doctors believed it was unlikely he would have been conscious.

Instead, the 40-ton Scania PRT truck may have driven erratically and ultimately stopped because the brakes were deployed.

E.U. regulations adopted in 2012 require that all newly manufactured trucks heavier than 3,500 kilograms (3.9 tons) be fitted with an advanced emergency braking system. The systems use radar and cameras to detect obstacles and warn the driver. In the event of a crash, the brakes may stop the vehicle entirely. Although the driver can override the brakes, an inexperienced user may not know how.

According to Süddeutsche Zeitung, there was high praise for the regulation in Berlin government circles, who said it had “saved lives” and noted that a similar attack involving an older truck in Nice, France, had killed 86 and injured hundreds.

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Correction: A reference to Urban being stabbed in the truck has been removed, as the preliminary autopsy did not find evidence of stab wounds.