Have crash tests ever used live (or dead) human occupants?

The result of a head-on collision between car and wall at an automobile safety research facility in Wolfsburg, Germany.See more car safety pictures.
Peter Ginter/Getty Images

Some days, you go into work and just get slammed. For most people, that's just a figure of speech. But for a select few professions, like linebackers, pro wrestlers and crash test dummies, getting slammed is part of the job -- literally.

Car Safety Image Gallery

Now, you're probably thinking it sounds silly to propose that inanimate objects, like crash test dummies, are employed. Before you start screaming for HAL to open the pod bay doors, consider this: Rusty Haight, a living, breathing human being, has completed more than 700 crash tests -- as the dummy. That's right, a human crash dummy.

Crash testing is an integral part of automotive design and engineering, consumer protection and even law enforcement. A number of organizations perform crash tests. Advocacy groups, like Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) perform safety and crash tests to protect consumers. The U.S. government performs crash tests to make sure that cars sold in the United States meet minimum safety requirements. Car makers perform crash tests to test how well their cars work. All of these groups use crash tests to find safety issues and test solutions to make cars safer and reduce injuries and deaths from car accidents.

Over the decades, crash test dummies have become remarkable sources of information about the damage that can result from the extreme forces exerted on a body during a violent impact. Read the next page to find out some of the advancements in dummy engineering.

­

Engineering Dummies

A pregnant crash test dummy is fitted with a seatbelt prior to a test.
A pregnant crash test dummy is fitted with a seatbelt prior to a test.
Andy Sacks/Getty Images

The purpose of crash tests is to gather data - not just about the car's systems, but about the effect of the crash on the people in the car. Some of the effects are obvious. In a crash, people in cars are exposed to physical force and as a result they usually get tossed around. That's obvious. Crash testing studies the forces car occupants are exposed to during a crash in a controlled, measurable environment. The data crash tests gather is so precise, it can help develop new and better safety systems.

Some of the most specific data in a crash test comes from the dummies themselves. Crash test dummies are engineered to mimic human physiology and to approximate what a human body endures during a crash. The dummies have sensors throughout, which allow crash test engineers to see exactly what forces the dummy was exposed to and how strong those forces were.

A lot of engineering goes into crash test dummies. They come in different sizes and shapes, to show what might happen to men, women and children in accidents. Crash test dummies can be overweight, thin, tall or short. Scientists have even developed a pregnant crash test dummy to study the effect of car crashes on pregnant women and their unborn babies.

But as advanced as crash test dummies are, they can't tell researchers everything that happens in a crash. That's why some people suit up and strap in as human crash test dummies. Read on to find out how and why they do it.

Human Crash Test Dummies

They're highly advanced, but these dummies can't react to an approaching collision. A human crash test dummy can often provide better results.
They're highly advanced, but these dummies can't react to an approaching collision. A human crash test dummy can often provide better results.
Peter Ginter/Getty Images

With all the sensors and technology built into a crash test dummy, why would a human occupant yield better crash test data? Crash test dummies are very good about showing how much force impacts a body during an accident. What they can't do is show how much force a human body can reasonably expect to take without getting injured. If actual humans weren't crash test dummies, scientists wouldn't have data to judge the forces in a crash as safe or unsafe.

There are also a few things crash test dummies can't do. Namely, they can't react to the impending collision. When people are in a crash, they instinctively tense their muscles. That's something a dummy can't do, and it's something that could also lead to injury during an accident. Crash test dummies also don't have skin -- and many of the injuries in an accident are cuts and abrasions.

That's where human crash test dummies come in. Human cadavers were first used in crash tests long before crash test dummies were invented. Occasionally, cadavers are still used today, although most automakers and research institutions don't like to talk about it. It's a lot more fun to talk about living human crash test dummies.

While uncommon, these volunteers participate in slow speed crash tests to provide invaluable data to crash investigators and engineers. Still, these tests aren't without problems. For one, constantly experiencing car crashes, even slow ones, takes a toll on a person. There are also ethical considerations: The quest for data can overshadow the need for safety. Though the crash tests are very controlled, and every precaution is taken, there is always the risk of severe injury or even death for the human tester.

So the next time you crash after a hard day's work, be thankful it's only an expression. For some people, crashing is part of the job. For more information about crash testing, automotive safety features and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

­

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • BBC News. "How The Dead Have Helped the Living." September 23, 1998. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/car_crash/48062.stm
  • Drury, Bob. "Meet the Human Crash Test Dummy." Men's Health. http://www.menshealth.com/cda/article.do?site=MensHealth&channel =guy.wisdom&category=howto.guides&conitem= ce5a99edbbbd201099edbbbd2010cfe793cd____
  • Harley, Michael. "Ghastly! Saab may have used human cadavers for safety research." Autoblog. May 8, 2008. http://www.autoblog.com/2008/05/08/ghastly-saab-may-have-used -human-cadavers-for-safety-research/
  • Left Lane News. "Report: GM/Saab used human cadavers for crash tests." May 8, 2008. http://www.leftlanenews.com/report-gm-saab-used-human-cadavers-for-crash-tests.html
  • Roach, Mary. "I was a human crash test dummy." Salon.com. November 19, 1999. http://www.salon.com/health/col/roac/1999/11/19/crash_test/
  • Rupp, Jonathan. "Development of the MAMA-2B Pregnant Crash Test Dummy." University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. March 31, 2000. http://www.umtri.umich.edu/project.php?wipID=81