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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.