With the invention of the car, safety wasn’t at the top of — or even on — early automakers’ to-do lists. But the anecdotal evidence was there for why we all needed a safer ride. Take for instance the raw, untreated glass that used to pass for a windshield. In accidents people would fly through the glass and be maimed horribly, if not instantly killed.
Then, in the same city that changed the way the world moves, the work of researchers in an underground lab at Wayne State also gave birth to the concept of vehicle safety.
Seventy-five years later, the school’s Department of Biomedical Engineering continues to define safety standards today for the world’s automakers — the philosophy being that if they can understand how injuries work, cars can be better built to prevent them.
Pioneers of Safety
Henry Ford, the Fisher Brothers, Carl Benz, and Ransom Olds were some of the names that defined the early auto industry. But as the automobile grew to represent class, wealth, and elegance, the safety factor lagged with beauty often trumping more practical concerns for both carmakers and the people who drove their vehicles.
Before Charles Kettering’s electric starter arrived via Cadillac in 1912, for example, the starter cranks in cars were known to break wrists and disfigure drivers with untimely backfires. The turn signal wouldn’t arrive until 1937. The seat belt didn’t become an option until 1950.
The result was a bevy of bloodied, mutilated drivers at a time when the car companies favored appearance over safety.
Detroit physicians were, not surprisingly, the first to take note — mainly due to the gruesome injuries arriving in their hospitals. In the 1930s, Dr. Claire Straith, a plastic surgeon at Detroit’s Harper Hospital, was an outspoken advocate for improved safety in automobiles. His patients included women and children mangled while riding in the front passenger seat, which Straith nicknamed the “death seat.”
Unpadded dashboards and poorly placed metal knobs that skewered passengers were the main culprits of injury. Radically ahead of his time, Straith patented and installed homemade seat belts and elementary crash pads in his personal vehicles. These initial innovations influenced Chrysler to introduce recessed knobs in their 1937 models, but they neglected to do the same the following year.
In 1939, a neurosurgeon and an engineer got together in the hopes of solving problems only the other could answer. This led to a more methodical approach to the case for safety that had eluded early adopters like Straith.
Dr. Elisha Gurdjian of Wayne State’s School of Medicine realized that doctors were ill-equipped to understand the biomechanical forces at play with head trauma resulting from car crashes. So he teamed up with Herbert Lissner, a young engineering professor at Wayne State who would eventually write the definitive book on biomechanics, Biomechanics of Human Motion.
The result was the establishment of the oldest active biomedical engineering program in the world.
Indeed, long before Ralph Nader’s seminal book Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile helped pass the landmark National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, researchers at Wayne State were ensuring that seat belts, air bags, and high-penetration windshields would become part of your daily commute.
On Death and Dummies
These industrywide safety standards over the years have come courtesy of the school’s many researchers and their faithful assistants — human cadavers — in a decades-long quest to understand how high-impact trauma affects people who are still alive.
“There’s never a dull day around here,” says Albert King, who has a doctorate in biomechanics and has been a professor at Wayne State for 48 years. “There’s always something new to figure out. There’s always a new way to understand injury and how to prevent it.”
The donated dead play a crucial role in doing just that.
Simply put, a living body can’t withstand a ride on the crash sled (the first of which was developed in that basement lab in 1960).
Cadavers donated to science make perfect substitutes, demonstrating how much impact the body can take before it breaks. How much pressure can the shoulder take in a side impact collision of a modern hatchback? How does your brain move around inside the skull during whiplash? These findings go toward making a realistic crash test dummy that essentially replicates the human body.
That’s not to say that the biomedical researchers at Wayne State actually build those dummies. In the world of biomedical engineering where medical problems are solved through engineering, collecting data is the true driving force of their work. Others can then use that data as a foundation for producing highly technical machines, from MRIs and pacemakers to crash test dummies and, ultimately, safer cars.
Research Hits the Road
How does basic, raw data cultivated from cadavers riding crash sleds and other unique experiments benefit the modern driver? In the heart of the biomedical engineering lab at Wayne State, it’s about sorting through the grisly details brought on by their work to help others spark innovation.
“We’re in the wrong field, but the consolation is that we’re saving some lives,” says King. “We don’t make better seat belts. What we do is provide the basic data to develop a safer vehicle.”
There’s no doubt that the data from WSU has helped save lives. In 1966 — the same year the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was unanimously passed — more than 50,000 people died in car accidents. That was nearly 26 fatalities per 100,000 people.
By 2011, there were only 10 deaths per 100,000 people. And in 2012, car accident fatalities dropped to 33,561, a continuation of historic lows for traffic deaths in the past five years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In terms of fatalities compared with miles driven, Americans’ safety on the modern road is even more extraordinary. In 1966 the population was only about 200 million and there were far fewer cars. Now there are about 314 million people in this country and an estimated 247 million cars on the road. That would seem to be a lot more opportunity for traffic fatalities. And yet there’s only one death for approximately every 100 million miles we drive.
It was the work of Gurdjian and Lissner that would ultimately show what can happen to the human body when there are no mechanisms in place to protect it.
From the beginning, cadavers played a critical role. Gurdjian and Lissner started experiments that were as crude as the injuries they wanted to prevent. By dropping a steel ball from a 12-story window onto a human skull, they could study the nature of blunt head trauma and fractures. Even as World War II turned Detroit into the Arsenal of Democracy and automotive manufacturing for personal use came to a halt, the duo persisted.
“During the war, they were using Ford Motor Company equipment to continue their research,” says King. “They would borrow the equipment at night and return it the next morning.”
Another Wayne State professor, Lawrence Patrick, followed in his predecessors’ footsteps in the 1960s, becoming a modern innovator of biomechanics and using cadavers to test seat belts, safety glass for windshields, collapsible steering columns, dashboards, air bags, and an endless amount of other automotive safety innovations that we take for granted today.
Patrick uniquely sacrificed his own body for research. Becoming a living, breathing crash test dummy of sorts in different types of crashes associated with a low risk of injury, Patrick endured 22-pound metal pendulums to the chest and approximately 400 rides on a rapid-deceleration sled that simulates what it feels like to slam headfirst into a wall.
Collectively, all of these pioneering researchers pushed Wayne State to become the first American university to engage in experimental laboratory testing on injury impact. Previously, as King explains, fieldwork on automotive injuries was limited to looking at accidents after they occurred.
“When we first started, it was all gory photos of people getting hurt,” says King. “Then we started developing methods to minimize these injuries. When you simply look at a crash, it’s tough to pull data from that. It’s not easy to figure out what caused the injury because you can’t measure the input to the body.”
That forward-thinking research helped forge a relationship between Wayne State and the auto companies. Since the 1940s, Ford and General Motors have funded the university’s research. Their funding helped continue the study of injury and, most importantly, how to prevent it before drivers ever really thought about safety behind the wheel.
“When you look at the industry today, you have to meet certain injury criteria,” explains Priya Prasad, who worked with Ford developing safety technology from 1973 until his retirement as a technical fellow in 2008. “There is hardly any criteria that wasn’t developed in the biomedical lab at Wayne State.”
Elusive Goals Beyond Cars
When King joined the faculty of the department of biomedical engineering in 1966, the scope of Wayne State’s research was already expanding, propelled by the Vietnam War and the large number of POWs returning with severe spinal injuries. Rocket-propelled ejection seats prevented pilots from being cut in half by the tail of the plane, but the g-forces wreaked havoc on their backbones. So researchers turned an elevator shaft at Wayne State into a makeshift ejection seat. Cadavers were strapped in and shot upward to simulate the effect of traumatic forces on the spines of pilots.
The ejection seat project was “unique,” King says, even though Wayne State is certainly not the only school to use cadavers.
Today King believes his department continues to lead the world in many biomedical aspects that go beyond cars. For example, their research is helping to explain how concussions work not only in car accidents, but in a whole host of scenarios. Most notably, at a time when the NFL has begun to take very seriously the cumulative effect of multiple concussions on its players, the work at Wayne State will likely inform better helmets and other protective sports gear in the future.
Researchers are still on the hunt for better automotive safety, despite the fact that people don’t think of it as a problem anymore, King says. They’ve moved beyond the study of passive safety (preventing injury) to accident avoidance (alerting the driver before a crash occurs and inflatable seat belts) — and protecting people from concussions and trauma to the brain remains an elusive goal.
King believes progress is being slowed by the influence of insurance companies and other competing interests.
“We think we have a solution, but it’s slow catching on,” he explains. “It’s to put the headrest right up against the head [while driving]. The original recommendation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims 4 inches, but we think the injury occurs within those 4 inches.”
The study of military injuries is back in the forefront as well.
“Now we’re moving to blast-related injuries in military scenarios, which is a whole new field,” says King. “Our soldiers being injured in IED (improvised explosive device) blasts require new equipment. We’re developing new methods of testing so we can simulate these scenarios using the equipment used to simulate automotive crashes.”
By doing so, King is putting himself and his colleagues at the helm of groundbreaking injury research like those before him at Wayne State.
“I don’t think we can prevent all injuries in this severe military scenario because the human body just wasn’t designed to take these kinds of accelerations,” says King. “But when we first started in the automotive industry, we didn’t see what was causing it. In the military, we see these injuries — broken legs, broken spines.
“Once we understand it, we can medicate it. We can save lives.”