50 Years of Highway Safety - Happy Anniversary!


In September 1959 a group of insurance companies in the U.S. got together and formed the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Their mission: "to conduct, sponsor, and encourage programs designed to aid in the conservation and preservation of life and property from the hazards of highway accidents." They appointed Dr. William Haddon Jr. as their president, and he brought with him a whole passel of research and statistics that allowed the IIHS to make model-by-model damage comparisons in vehicular crashes. Cynics are likely to point out that, to the folks at AAA or State Farm, fewer traumatic personal injuries equals smaller claims paid, and that the overall reduction in deaths and catastrophic injuries thanks to safer vehicles is just so much icing on the cake. But we're not here to analyze the IIHS's motives, we just want to see the cool stuff that has resulted once automobile safety became an issue!

Crash Test Dummies Put Cadavers Out of Work

Until the Anthropomorphic Test Device "“ that's a Crash Test Dummy to you and me "“ was invented, human cadavers were routinely used for collision testing in the automotive industry. The first Dummy was invented in 1949 for use by the U.S. Air Force to test ejection seats. "Sierra Sam," as the first model was dubbed, had articulated joints but a rigid neck and spine, so he wasn't very useful in automotive crash simulations. Mark I debuted in 1952, and he not only came equipped with ball-and-socket joints to simulate the motion of a human spine, but also computerized sensors in his skull to measure acceleration and force of impact. Most of the technological updates in Dummies were left to NASA until 1966, when the Big Three started adding shoulder restraints to some models. The automotive industry plunged in and started designing all sorts of state-of-the-art Dummies, including a variety of children's models since the dolls had to be able to simulate the many positions and situations toddlers got into during family drives, including standing on the back seat and laying across mom's lap. As a youngster, I was always fascinated by the Dummies' demonstrations of what happened when you didn't buckle up for safety:

When Seat Belts Were Strictly an Option

Before the IIHS started studying car crashes and their effects on passengers, the main concern design-wise of the automobile industry was producing a stylish car that looked good. Darned good. As a result, the majority of American cars in the 1950s and 60s were three-ton behemoths with mile-long hoods and trucks, all made of solid steel. Seat belts were still strictly an option on most models, so the consequences of a head-on collision could be particularly gruesome. Cornell University took the time to break down the events that occurred in first second of a 55 mile-per-hour typical accident into tenths of seconds. In the first tenth, the front bumper and hood collapse. During the second tenth"¦.oh heck, Jack Webb can describe it much better:

Cars that Crumple

Once passenger safety started figuring into the equation, automotive engineers approached design from a different angle, and the crumple zone was born. The crumple zone actually causes the front end of the vehicle to be more malleable; that is, unlike the solid protective barriers of yesteryear, the steel surrounding the front of your car is now designed to yield when hit head-on, so that it absorbs energy upon impact and slows down the deceleration rate within the passenger compartment. To put it more simply, take a look at this IIHS video of a 1959 Chevrolet Bel-Air smashing into a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. One vehicle far outweighs the other, but guess which Crash Test Dummy suffers less "injury" thanks to a combination of the crumple zone, seat belts, airbags and wrap-around seat design.

The Birth of Signal 30

Depending upon when (and where) you took your driver's education class, you may be familiar with the "scare" classic Signal 30. This film featured a compilation of very graphic aftermath film footage/photos of a variety of traffic accidents. How such scenes came to be captured on film can be traced back to a case of being in the right place at the unfortunate right time. In the mid-1950s an accountant, amateur photographer and police enthusiast named Richard Wayman happened to be nearby when a fatal accident involving a motorcyclist and a train occurred. He grabbed his camera, snapped some on-scene photographs, and offered them to the Mansfield (Ohio) Police Department to aid in their investigation. The Mansfield cops were so enthusiastic in their thanks that Wayman made photographing accident scenes a hobby. During his various "shoots" he met Phyllis Vaughn, another photographer with a police scanner. The two eventually joined forces, added a 16mm movie camera to their equipment and formed the Highway Safety Foundation. Until video cameras flooded the market, the HSF's movies were the only source of real-life gore for training films.