Back in the 1930s, human cadavers took a lot of punishment to determine how the body responds to the sudden, violent forces of a car crash.
Steel ball bearings were dropped on their skulls from various heights. Bodies were dumped down unused elevator shafts onto steel plates. Cadavers fitted with crude devices to measure acceleration were strapped into cars and subjected to head-on collisions and rollovers. Even animals like chimpanzees and pigs served as crash dummies.
Moral and ethical objections prompted a progression from cadavers, animals and even live human volunteers to today’s tricked-out crash test dummies, which are designed to mimic nearly every human reaction to front, side and rear crashes.
Modern-day crash test dummies are certainly your friends. After all, the hard knocks that they take can prevent you from suffering injuries in a crash and can keep your auto insurance rates from jumping.
Safety corresponds with auto insurance costs
Safety ratings for cars "play a role in determining how much you will pay for car insurance,” says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.
Auto insurance companies always reward safer vehicles with better rates and discounts, she says.
“A safe vehicle with additional safety features, such as side air bags, means less risk of injuries occurring if there is an accident. This translates to lower insurance premiums,” Worters says.
The growth of crash testing
Jack Jensen, a General Motors safety engineer who oversees the automaker's crash test dummy lab in Milford, Mich., says crash testing took off in the late 1960s after the interstate highway system was born. “That’s when the U.S. government got involved trying to reduce the number of fatalities on the road," Jensen says.
Most crash test dummies have flesh-colored exteriors and bear a mannequin-like resemblance to humans. By and large, auto manufacturers use similar versions of dummies. In the 1960s, GM created the dummy model that’s still employed today, although the design has evolved over the years.
About 200 crash test dummies live at Jensen's lab. GM has another 200 at labs in other countries.
“Whether you’re buying a luxury vehicle or an economical one, they all go through the same extensive battery of crash tests,” Jensen says.
All shapes and sizes
Jensen says the current family of crash test dummies comprises three adult sizes:
- A male representing the typical size of about half of American men; it weighs about 178 pounds and stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
- A male weighing about 235 pounds and standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
- A small adult female weighing about 105 pounds and standing about 4-foot-11.
Several child-size dummies also populate GM's test lab:
- A “small” adult female standing in for a 14-year-old boy or girl.
- A dummy representing a 10-year-old is used to evaluate seat belts in front-impact tests.
- A dummy representing a 6-year-old helps put booster seats and air bags to the test.
- A dummy representing a 3-year-old.
- Baby dummies representing newborns as well as babies at 18, 12 and 6 months.
The dummies’ electronic “organs,” or internal instruments, take several measurements, including how fast the chest compresses or the head whips around in a crashed car.
“Even if occupants aren’t the same size as the crash dummy, we can calculate the risk of injury for elderly or overweight people with the dummies we have,” Jensen says. “We know that an older person would have less bone density and be more susceptible to fractures, and we can calculate for that using the three adult sizes we have.”
Since crash test dummies don’t break, Jensen says they tend to hang around for a while.
“One dummy can cost anywhere from $125,000 to $400,000, so we typically replace parts instead of the entire dummy,” he says. “We run about 2,500 tests to make sure a dummy’s parts don’t need to be replaced."