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  • By Richard Wolkomir

    Sitting in our stead: crash dummies take the hard knocks for all of us

    In the quest to create safer cars, researchers subject high-tech humanoids to everything from head-on collisions to nasty sideswipes

    Tom Terry, director of crash evaluations for General Motors, holds up a head. It is from a crash-test dummy, an aluminum-and-vinyl replicated human head. Terry contemplates it, assuming the "Alas, poor Yorick" position. "It weighs ten pounds," he says. "In an automobile crash, because of the forces at work, your body parts may weigh 20 times normal, so this head would be 200 pounds-you couldn't control where it went." That is why carmakers like General Motors stock up on extra dummy heads. Also spare arms, torsos, legs and feet. Sometimes-in the line of duty-the dummies get a bit under the weather. In fact, Terry is standing in the dummy hospital at GM's Milford Proving Grounds, near Detroit. Dummies come here after a hard day at the office, to get fixed up. Seven of them are now sitting on chairs along the wall, heads slumped, like a forlorn family in an emergency room after a disaster. First in line is the "50th Percentile Male," an average Joe of 5 feet 8 and 170 pounds. Right now, after riding cars into walls all day, he is suffering from "sick sensors": the transducers buried at key points in his head and body need recalibration That is what ails the entire family, including the "5th Percentile Female," who is small enough to serve also as a teenager. Her forehead's plastic skin is bruised. Slumped beside her is the "95th Percentile Male," a big guy built like a linebacker. His leg is crooked. All three wear pink tights to give them correct friction on the car seat, so that when their Chevy or Oldsmobile crumples against a barrier they will slide around just as we would. Most pathetic are the kids, in assorted sizes-ages 6 months, 1, 3 and 6 years. Child labor laws do not apply to dummies. It is OK to anthropomorphize crash-test dummies because anthropomorphism is what they do: they are our stunt doubles. They repeatedly crash into walls to show


    Using study aids like this mold of an actual human skull (opposite), Tom Terry, director of crash evaluations at GM, and colleagues have focused on anatomy to make state-of-the-art dummies like the mannequin at his side.
    what would happen to us. GM engineers say 30 percent of their crashes are to make sure new cars meet federal safety regulations. The rest are to work out bugs in prototype cars or equipment. It is anything but cheap thrills. Each instrumented dummy costs nearly $100,000. Every year GM alone perpetrates about 500 intentional car collisions. Other manufacturers demolish their cars, too. They also employ crash "sleds" that help researchers understand how vehicle interiors can be made even safer. Dummies are simulacra of us, their proportions exact, their transducers analogous to our nerves. They are, as one engineer puts it, injury-measuring devices." They are just machines. But they look so much like us it is upsetting to see them take our hits.

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