Dead can speak: automobile safety testing at WSU


When you climb into your car today, you expect to be reasonably protected in case of a crash; perhaps an inflatable seatbelt will cushion your chest, or tempered windows will reduce the incidence of dangerous shattered glass. When you wonder how these safety provisions came into being, an obvious answer comes to mind: safety tests, of course. In actuality, many of the championed safety features of automobiles today are quietly influenced by dead people in college labs.

For years, automakers have employed research universities to run cadaver tests of key safety features. Using a cadaver is universally the most accurate way to simulate actual human injury—despite how icky it may sound — and Wayne State’s bioengineering department has been one of the key players in automobile cadaver testing for decades.

In 1939, WSU began testing cadaver skulls to measure how much force the human body could sustain. In the 1960s, tests began using whole-body cadavers. This is when late professors Herbert Lissner and Lawrence Patrick published a major article describing their “Wayne State Tolerance Curve,” or the amount of force required to cause head injuries in a car crash. This data was in turn extensively used to develop the Head Injury Criterion, which automobile companies around the world still use today. WSU has been employed by Ford, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, GM and automotive suppliers in testing various safety features in an automobile.

Albert King, one of the leading researchers in cadaver testing at WSU’s bioengineering lab, offers insight into the testing itself.

“We actually rarely test cadavers in an automobile,” he said. “We do tests on a crash sled to simulate frontal, side and rear impacts. We look for areas in the interior of the car that can potentially cause injury in a crash. In fact, we try to protect the occupant from head to toe.”

But, the obvious question still remains: Why use dead bodies when mannequins are readily available to be sold to automobile companies?

“Mannequins or crash dummies are designed and built based on data from cadaver testing so that they are as human-like as possible,” King said.

Running these tests for automobile companies allows the continuous growth and development of not only car safety features, but of easily replaceable dummies for automakers to use in their own labs. These are the dummies we see in crash-test advertisements for many car companies.

Despite these benefits to cadaver testing, the process of the test itself can be disquieting. King emphasizes the care taken with all cadavers used in the lab, saying, “We are required to treat cadavers with respect, and each worker in the cadaver lab is required to sign a pledge to that effect.”

Regardless, observing a cadaver test can be an eerie process, and author Mary Roach describes her observational experience at WSU’s bioengineering lab in 2001 in her book “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

Roach was invited to watch a cadaver shoulder impact experiment using a cadaver dubbed “UM 006,” and goes into detail concerning the cadaver itself: “UM 006 is dressed in a Smurf blue Leotard and matching tights … to ensure anonymity, the dead man’s face is masked by a snug-fitting white cotton hood. Matt fires a piston … The impact itself is silent. UM 006 slumps over like an off-balance laundry sack. Distilled to its essence, it is simply science, no longer tragedy.”

Cadavers, such as UM 006, are received through family donations to “medical education research.” The families are not informed as to the cadavers’ specific use, except in cases in which the researchers themselves are required to explicitly inform family members. Universities that receive funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including WSU, are occasionally instructed to inform the family if their willed body consent forms were not clear enough; all consent forms are reviewed by the NHTSA before cadaver use. UM 006’s family members did not know his purpose in automobile safety research, but as Roach thoughtfully writes, the solemnity and subtle tragedy of cadaver testing is reworked into straightforward science in WSU’s labs.

Today, cadaver automobile research at WSU is drastically reduced into only a couple per year, opposed to 1966 figures of one test every month. Automobiles have simply reached the height of safety technology. Now, research focuses on how to prevent crashes rather than on how to protect the occupant. This drop in testing, however, does not mean WSU has stopped testing cadavers altogether.

King said his labs still do work for Ford and the U.S. Army. “We use cadavers to study the effects of blasts from improvised explosive devices on the brain and on the torso and lower extremities for the mounted soldier (in vehicles),” he said. “We also used cadavers in orthopedic biomechanics to study bone strength and fracture mechanisms.”

Cadaver tests save lives and foster innovation, and WSU’s bioengineering labs are instrumental in this process.

So, the next time you hop into your car, consider the countless cadavers and researchers that helped make it the safest it could possibly be — and be sure to drive safely out on Michigan’s roads.

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