The Crash Test Dummies Are People!
October 7, 2019 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Glass explodes. Metal screams against metal. A car crash is a waking nightmare, but one that has become increasingly survivable—and we have piles of dead bodies to thank. At the Wayne State University campus in midtown Detroit, there stands an empty building once used by the school’s Biomechanical Engineering department. It was here that one of the grandfathers of modern automotive safety, Dr. Lawrence Patrick, first tossed a human corpse down an unused elevator shaft. You know, for science. While using human remains as test subjects may seem ghoulish, these researchers and donated bodies were, and still are, on the front lines of saving lives.

(Warning: This post includes images of dead bodies, used as cadavers and wrapped for anonymity and dignity.)

This is gonna be a creepy one. Buckle up.

posted by Johnny Wallflower (24 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
Dr. Lawrence Patrick, first tossed a human corpse down an unused elevator shaft.

My guidance counselor never mentioned this as a career possibility.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 12:55 PM on October 7 [27 favorites]


Were you alive at the time?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:03 PM on October 7 [13 favorites]


What a ghoulish, horrible, terrible video--watching the death of that beautiful 1959 Bel-Air was deeply traumatizing.
posted by mattdidthat at 1:06 PM on October 7 [11 favorites]


Traumatising, but deeply informative and, in its own way, beautiful. I grew up with cars like that and an older generation that thought "stronger" cars were safer. A thorough and visceral illustration of the falseness of that belief was terribly valuable to me; and I thought the thorough destruction of the Bel-Air was almost like a mechanical ballet.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:21 PM on October 7 [6 favorites]


And since it was illegal to kill a grad student—yes, even back then

Ha.

I wonder how many of the grad students or cadavers were female. Until the model year 2011 cars came out, there were no regulations stating that these crash tests needed to use dummies based on female bodies, overweight bodies, child sized bodies, or any size and shape other than the average male. Given that oversight, it's not too surprising that women are far more likely to suffer serious injuries in a car crash.

More recently, we've got crash test dummies that are able to walk (let's take a moment to be glad that nobody tried that one with cadavers) and can be used to test automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection systems. (Spoiler: they don't work yet.)
posted by asperity at 1:24 PM on October 7 [15 favorites]


So why wasn’t anything done sooner? In Ford’s case, the safety package quickly fizzled out. Buyers ended up going for those sexy and unsafe Chevys like the Bel Air pictured above to the tune of 190,000 cars more than Ford sold. Henry Ford II even begrudgingly said this about his own general manager, Robert McNamara: “McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars.”

Not only is the answer to my question "Yes, THAT Robert McNamara", but this was the job he had immediately prior to the position wherein he would become famous for his quantitative approach to warmaking.
posted by billjings at 1:35 PM on October 7 [10 favorites]




In the late 80s and early 90s, several college friends worked at a similar lab at UVa's engineering school. IIRC they were just sent home on the few days a year when they would be crashing cadavers, and they noted that the PIs and postdocs had *ALL* the immunizations.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:49 PM on October 7 [4 favorites]


> > Dr. Lawrence Patrick, first tossed a human corpse down an unused elevator shaft.

> My guidance counselor never mentioned this as a career possibility.


Your guidance counselor never watched LA Law.
posted by parliboy at 1:50 PM on October 7 [4 favorites]


Meant to add: apparently there were all kinds of side-things they had to research. Like getting an embalming fluid that allowed some freedom of movement to the cadaver but didn't leave it completely floppy* was a real challenge.

*Or something like that... this was talking over beers ~30 years ago.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:56 PM on October 7 [3 favorites]


When I was in med school, I spent time working at a large facility that dressed cadavers in weird body stockings, strapped them into vehicles, accelerated said vehicles to high speeds and smashed them into things. Not the facility at Wayne State mentioned in the linked article, but a sister facility elsewhere in the US. We had contracts with lots of vehicle manufacturers as well as the federal government and at any given time there would be brand-new trucks and cars in various states of disassembly getting prepped for being hurled into barriers with dead people riding shotgun. Quite an interesting experience overall.

Interestingly, the same facility had some sort of hush-hush contract with the NFL (at right about the same time that the football brain injury publicity was first peaking) and there were football helmets scattered around inside. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about what those were used for.
posted by killdevil at 2:30 PM on October 7 [16 favorites]


My guidance counselor never mentioned this as a career possibility.

Were you alive at the time?


Once there was this kid who
Got into an accident and couldn't come to school
But when he finally came back
His hair had turned from black into bright white
He said that it was from when
The cars had smashed him so hard
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm.

- Crash Test Dummies
posted by Beardman at 2:43 PM on October 7 [19 favorites]


Oh, man, I hope they do something cool with my corpse when the med school gets hold of it!

I know, I know, it'll probably get sold off for parts, but a girl can dream. I can be the daredevil I never got to be in life. Elevator shaft, here I coooooooooo...


I was nearly born in an elevator. If I was a boy my middle name was going to be Otis.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:25 PM on October 7 [12 favorites]


watching the death of that beautiful 1959 Bel-Air was deeply traumatizing

As a gearhead whose love of esoteric French and tiny Italian cars left me forever marginalized by the snide, wisecracking legions of fin-polishing American-iron chauvinists, my response evokes a beloved comic strip. I especially enjoyed how the can't-beat-physics Chevrolet landbarge would kill you with the car's ceiling, which seems like a part of the car that could be relied on to—you know—not kill you.
posted by sonascope at 4:36 PM on October 7


Missed opportunity post title: Soylent Dummies...
posted by mightshould at 4:39 PM on October 7


I highly recommend Mary Roach’s Stiff for anyone who digs this kind of thing. There’s a whole chapter on research of this type. It will forever change how you hear a certain Pat Benatar song.
posted by armeowda at 5:09 PM on October 7 [5 favorites]


posted by armeowda It will forever change how you hear a certain Pat Benatar song.

I'm surprised you didn't recommend a certain song by Drowning Pool.
posted by mattdidthat at 6:42 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


Can I volunteer my corpse for the jet-powered monkey-navigated rocket sled testing?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:02 PM on October 7 [3 favorites]


“God help you if you lived in the vicinity of Wayne State University in the mid-’60s and you donated your body to science,” Mary Roach wrote Up her book Stiff: The Interesting Lives Of Human Cadavers.
God help you if you let someone like Mary Roach decide what happens to your remains. Stiff has been on my reading list for years. It isn't any more. Cripes.

Otherwise, an interesting article. Thanks!
posted by eotvos at 8:43 PM on October 7 [1 favorite]


“God help you if you lived in the vicinity of Wayne State University in the mid-’60s and you donated your body to science,” Mary Roach wrote Up her book Stiff: The Interesting Lives Of Human Cadavers.
I'm pretty sure she's joking.
posted by peacheater at 4:05 AM on October 8 [8 favorites]


I highly recommend Mary Roach’s Stiff for anyone who digs this kind of thing. There’s a whole chapter on research of this type. It will forever change how you hear a certain Pat Benatar song.

Let me guess.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:48 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]


I colloquially refer to all the classic muscle cars, and other graceful icons of past days as Deathtraps.
As in a Honda Civic would shred any of them in a frontal impact; such as the '59 'Cat-Eye' Bel Air was by the '09 Malibu.

Beautiful items; and yes. Deathtraps on the road.
posted by buzzman at 7:37 AM on October 8


Halloween Jack and peacheater are both correct.
posted by armeowda at 9:18 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


I thought Mary Roach managed the line between respectful of the subject and light-hearted enough not to be depressing pretty well in Stiff, and wouldn't suggest avoiding it based on that line alone. YMMV, of course, but it's not as jocular as that made it sound.
posted by asperity at 12:45 PM on October 8 [4 favorites]


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