How crash-test dummies are changing

Dummies used today were designed decades ago

HOUSTON – Crash-test dummies are faces of auto safety. They can't talk, but the information they give researchers and car makers saves lives.

The only problem is the dummies used today were actually designed decades ago and haven't been updated as the population has changed.

Chris O'Connor, president and CEO of Humanetics, is working with trauma surgeons to give the old crash-test dummies a major makeover.

"The official term is anthropomorphic test devices, or ATDs, and it's such a tongue twister to say, that 'dummies' just become the common word to say," O'Connor said. "It's actually quite a compliment because a dummy is so sophisticated and has so much capability."

Humanetics is the original crash-test designer dating back to 1952. The company entered a partnership with the International Center of Automotive Medicine, led by trauma-surgeon doctor Stewart Wang.

"Like CSI, we get a lot of folks together, we look at a lot of data and we come up with very clear insights into why injuries are occurring," Wang said.

Years ago, Wang noticed a change in the pattern of injuries from car accidents. He attributed it to older crash-test dummies that led automakers to overlook potential safety improvements.

"I would jab at the dummy guys and say, 'Your dummies look nothing like my patients. They look nothing like the population these days anymore,'" Wang recalled.

When the first crash-test dummies were designed in the 70s, engineers could not have predicted changes in the driving population.

"It wasn't envisioned that people would be driving at age 70s, 80s, 90s, and the anatomical differences of an elderly person vary from a younger person," O’Connor said.

Humanetics is now using medical imaging from live patients to help them design more appropriate dummies.

"When you select a car and you look at it as 5-star crash rated or you look at the insurance institute rating scheme, you assume it's the same for all drivers, but in fact, it might not be," O'Connor said. "Our newest dummies -- the elderly dummy and the obese dummies -- are intended to reflect that type of person."

So what does a designer of crash-test dummies expect to see in the future?

"I think the variation we need to see over time is a variable restraint system or seats or other things that would vary based on the occupant," O'Connor said.

One thing you can do right now to improve your chances of survival in a crash is to make sure the lap belt portion of the safety restraint is low over your hips. Don't let it ride up on to your belly. That will help keep your body in place if there's a crash.

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