How Crash Tests Help Bring Traffic Deaths Down

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    Significant improvements in vehicle safety have been made over the past half-century, in large part because of research using crash test dummies. The photos show the result of a 40-mph crash test between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air (left) and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. In the Bel Air, the steering column was forced into the face of the dummy, and paint marks where the dummy's head hit the steering wheel, dashboard and roof. The dummy in the Malibu fared much better.
    Courtesy Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
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    Col. John Paul Stapp, an Air Force medical doctor, rides a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base. Between the late 1940s and mid-1950s, Stapp was one of the Air Force's most frequent volunteers in human deceleration testing. In his last run aboard the Sonic Wind I in 1954, Stapp accelerated to 632 mph in 5 seconds and decelerated in 1.4 seconds, experiencing 46.2 times the normal force of gravity. Stapp's research and involvement were instrumental in improving automotive safety.
    U.S. Air Force
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    Sierra Sam, the first crash test dummy, was created in 1949. Sam was what is known as a 95th percentile male dummy, meaning he weighed more and was taller than 95 percent of the male population. Sam was contracted by the U.S. Air Force and built by Sierra Engineering to test aircraft ejection seat systems.
    Creative Commons
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    Sierra Susie was developed in 1970. Susie was the most realistic dummy to date. She wore a wig and was a 5th percentile female dummy — weighing 104 pounds and measuring 30.9 inches tall when seated. Crash test dummies are not designed to stand unsupported, as they are usually confined to the seated position.
    Courtesy of Denton ATD
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    Members of the Hybrid III family of crash test dummies (from left): the 3-year-old dummy, 5th percentile female dummy and 50th percentile male dummy. Hybrid III is the most widely used family of crash test dummies. The 50th percentile male dummy was developed in 1976 by General Motors. In 1997, the Hybrid III became the government standard for evaluating frontal-impact crashes. Dummies typically have 20 to 40 sensors that evaluate acceleration, load forces and torque.
    Courtesy of Denton ATD
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    The THOR frontal-impact dummy is still under development by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. THOR will provide much improved biofidelic (lifelike) feedback. Shown in this photo, sensors under the ribs measure rib deflection. Certain configurations of THOR are capable of more than 130 channels of data transmission from various sensors.
    Courtesy of Denton ATD
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    A crash test dummy sits at a workstation inside the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville, Va. The IIHS crashes on average two vehicles per week.
    Brian Naylor/NPR
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    A dummy is used in a demonstration test of seat-back head restraints at the IIHS.
    Brian Naylor/NPR
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    These child-sized dummies are typically placed in the back seats of test vehicles. In addition to 3-, 6- and 10-year-old versions of the Hybrid III, CRABI dummies have been developed to simulate 6-, 12- and 18-month-old infants.
    Brian Naylor/NPR
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    Spare parts are lined up in the IIHS research facility. Though dummies are fairly resilient to trauma, they occasionally need to be repaired or have spare parts installed. According to the IIHS, the base price for a modern dummy is $50,000 to $100,000. Instrumentation can add another $100,000 to the price tag.
    Brian Naylor/NPR

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety spends about $1.5 million each year testing the safety of new cars. Its research has helped bring the annual highway deaths in the United States down to around 37,000 last year — the fewest since 1961.

At the institute's Vehicle Research Center in Charlottesville, Va., researchers usually crash two cars a week. David Zuby, a vice president of the institute, says the result is a more crash-worthy car.

"In '95, half of the vehicles we tested rated 'Poor,' " Zuby says. "Today, virtually all earn a 'Good' rating."

For its tests, the center uses crash test dummies, with greasepaint marks on their heads. After a crash, technicians note where the greasepaint leaves its mark — hopefully, it's on the vehicle's air bag.

Vice President Joe Nolan says the dummies are integral to the work of the institute.

"This guy can measure the deflection in the chest being pushed in, and also the acceleration, just the brute force, of how hard you've hit him in the neck," Nolan says of a test dummy. "It's got sensors in the top, so you can measure forces wanting to rip the head off to the rear, to the left and up, so all three forces but also all three movements."

The institute has just released its latest list of top safety picks. It's a shorter list than last year because of a new test designed to determine a car's ability to withstand a rollover.

Recently at the research center, analysts conducted a side-impact crash test on a new Ford Ranger pickup. The truck was crashed into a moving deformable barrier at 31 miles per hour.

After the test, Nolan noticed the truck's side was pretty well staved in. "Looks like a lot of deformation," he said, "and that makes it a real challenge for the air bag to protect the occupant."

But according to the readout from the dummy's sensors, if there had been a person in the cab, he or she would probably be fine.

As cars have gotten safer, automakers are now looking at technology that helps drivers avoid crashes altogether; from electronics that prevent skidding and rollovers to cameras and radar that see objects drivers might hit.

Car crashes may never completely be eliminated, but evolving high-tech safety systems could come close to making it happen.

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