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Automobile safety: the history of the crash test dummy

Earlier this week we talked about a new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regarding the importance of proper tire inflation to reduce crashes. For the last few years, new cars have been required to be equipped with warning devices to alert drivers to low tire pressure. There have been many such improvements in car safety over the last few decades. It brought to mind the question of how regulators and Detroit car manufacturers study the collisions that can result in serious injuries.

In addition to data collected from actual car accidents, the ability to replicate crashes in controlled environment where the speeds, forces, and results can all be carefully managed has been vital to making safety improvements in motor vehicles. To take the place of actual drivers and passengers researchers use crash test dummies, but interestingly the first use of life-like crash test dummies was not related to cars and trucks.

In 1949, an Air Force surgeon was studying what was scientifically described as the "physiology of rapid deceleration" that is, what happens to the body of a pilot when a place crashes. Previously sandbags, cadavers or animals were strapped into the test seat to simulate a human pilot. But this surgeon realized he could get better data with a more lifelike model. He requested that a dummy be made based on plaster casts of actual pilots.

In 1966 the first crash test dummy was built specifically for automobile testing. A later version of the automobile crash test dummy actually used the head of the Air Force dummy in order to conduct more accurate testing. These dummies have been crucial in the development of safer steering columns, crumple zones, air bags, and almost every other safety innovation.

In some rare cases researchers still use actual human drivers. This enables researches to study how a human driver might react by braking and steering just prior to the crash.

Source: New York Times, "Who Made That Crash-Test Dummy?," Hilary Greenbaum, May 18, 2012

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