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Reducing Car Accident Injuries with a Crash Test Dummy

In the 1990s, we all learned the importance of seat belts from two crash test dummies. These seat belts may have saved many lives from car accidents or truck accidents. And all of this happened with a simple catch phrase: “You could learn a lot from a dummy. Buckle your safety belt.” Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies featured in a series of public service announcements produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, became national personalities after getting flattened, ejected, and extricated from vehicles in an attempt to convince Americans of the importance of wearing their seat belts.

Their catchy slogans and hilarious demonstrations are said to be at least partially responsible for a substantial increase in seat belt usage in years following the ads, saving an estimated 85,000 lives from car and truck accidents. Once the NHTSA decided to revamp their campaign and part ways with the duo they adopted the slogan, “Buckle up, always” in an attempt to target part-time seat belt wearers.  The modern slogan, on the other hand, appeals more to drivers’ wallets than their safety.  “Click it or ticket” is the most successful seat belt enforcement campaign to date.

Crash Test Dummy Origin Story

Air Force Colonel John Paul Stapp, deemed the fastest man on earth, used his influence in 1967 to begin a crash test study program that would increase safety measures in both military aircraft and civilian automobiles. In addition to dummies, Stapp put human volunteers into salvaged vehicles and crashed them into wood or concrete barriers.  Based on the results of these tests, he recommended several modern safety features such as doors with safety locks and dashboards with energy-absorbing padding.

Moving From Humans to Dummies

Enter Sierra Sam.  Invented under a contract with the Air Force, Sierra Sam was the height and weight of a 95th percentile man and was used to test airplane ejection seats. After the success of Sierra Sam, Sierra Engineering tried their hand at making a modern vehicle crash test dummy but was outdone by General Motors (GM) who built the Hybrid I.  Hybrid I was the first dummy manufactured specifically for the auto industry because it produced repeatable results.   In 1972, GM created the Hybrid II crash test dummy.  Made of steel, vinyl and rubber, this model improved knee, spine and shoulder responses in addition to documenting more accurate results for vehicle manufacturers.  Another major difference between the Hybrid II and his predecessor is that the newer model was the size of a 50th percentile man in an attempt to more closely resemble the average size of the USA adult male population.  Naturally, the Hybrid III followed and has since become the industry standard for evaluating automotive safety in frontal car accidents. Different versions of the Hybrid III are available to represent the varying sizes and ages of a vehicle occupant.  Three Hybrid III child dummies were created in the sizes of a ten year old, a six year old, and an eight year old. Additionally, the Hybrid III was the first crash test dummy to include a female version designed to mimic the smallest segment of the adult population.  Despite its use worldwide, the Hybrid III does have some limitations; specifically that it was rated for testing in frontal car accidents but does not produce useful results in side impact, rear impact or rollover car accidents.

THOR: The Future of the Crash Test Dummy

THOR stands for Test device for Human Occupant Restraint.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has spent several years and millions of research dollars developing this sophisticated crash test dummy.  THOR’s advanced design features more than 50 sensors and offers more realistic car accident results than any crash test dummy before it.  With multi-directional capabilities THOR can be used in a number of different tests ranging from a simulated neck strain due to sudden deceleration to a broken rib cage caused by a T-bone accident. While the Hybrid III came in at just over $170,000, building one THOR dummy costs around $400,000.  Despite its steep price tag, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, and European New Car Assessment Programme, all plan on utilizing THOR in the near future to conduct crash tests and increase vehicle safety.  The U.S. will begin its use of THOR in 2019.  THOR’s innovative designs aimed at identifying the risks involved with specific types of car accidents will hopefully pressure automakers to manufacture safer cars.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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