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No brainer: better designed dummies could improve crash tests

Dec 20, 2012 - Car Accidents by

About 35,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year in the U.S. Why is the death toll so high when better technology should lead to safety improvements?

Part of the problem, of course, in North Carolina and across the country, is distracted driving. Too many people – not just teens – try to text and drive or are otherwise preoccupied by electronic devices.

Another reason, however, is a flaw in the testing process for new vehicles. Such tests tend to give skewed results, new research suggests, because the crash test dummies used are so outdated that they do not represent humans very well.

Donald Friedman, an engineer and auto safety expert for the Center for Injury Research, has been working on the issue extensively. He has found that crash test dummies used in vehicle safety testing are modeled after tests done in the early 1960s involving young Navy sailors who volunteered for the assignment.

These volunteers were put into a machine that accelerated, then stopped abruptly. Before being placed in the machine, the sailors had been instructed to keep hold their heads and necks as stiffly as possible. After the acceleration and sudden stop, they were asked to describe what types of characteristics a simulated human – i.e., a dummy – should have.

The problem with this approach is that it attempted to generalize representative human characteristics from one small sample: military men in their twenties who had been told to keep their neck and spinal muscles tensed.

The chief research official at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concurs with the view that the average crash test dummy does not represent the overall population very well today. Obviously, dummies are based on a male model miss half the population. In addition, a large percentage of the population today is much heavier than the fit Navy sailors that were the original models for crash test dummies.

The upshot is that if crash test dummies were more effective, safety devices could be better designed to prevent fatal car accidents.

Source: “Outdated Crash Test Dummies Blamed for Continued Auto Fatalities,” Claims Journal, Denise Johnson, 12-18-12

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