Don't be a dummy

When you're a real dummy, no ever has to explain things to you like you're a six year old. You just get it-- just like the unbelted crash-test dummy I saw buy the farm one warm Indiana evening last month.

To back up a bit, I sure wasn't going to miss the chance to witness a "Live Barrier Crash" as promised by the intriguing invitation from the Lifeguard Technologies Div. of IMMI that arrived on my desk a few weeks earlier.

I figured if they were going to crash a truck into a wall then there would have to be crash dummies on hand. OK, I'll pause here to admit that ever since those anthropomorphic creatures began popping up on TV in car safety PSAs and even commercial spots some years back, my warped sense of humor has warmly embraced them. Hey, if it was up to me, the crash dummies and not the Geico cavemen would be getting their own sit-com this fall. I think it is the faces that remain expressionless even when faced with the jaws of death that make these characters so hilarious.

But all hilarity aside, let's not forget crash dummies are key players in the worldwide design of advanced automotive safety systems that benefit all of us whenever we are on or near a road. For that, these dummies deserve our applause and get-well cards. And their makers deserve our full appreciation and respect.


Back to the cornfield, which is where IMMI has built its state-of-the-art crash facility about an hour directly north of Indy. IMMI said its Center for Advanced Product Evaluation (CAPE) in Westfield, IN, was opened in '99 to conduct crash tests, rollover tests and environmental tests. The firm said it houses the world‘s only 90-degree rollover impact machine for commercial vehicles as well as the largest barrier facility of its kind for evaluating the crashworthiness of large commercial vehicles. At 1.9-million lbs, the barrier block is the largest in the world, IMMI noted. It also said CAPE can crash vehicles at up to 65mph as well as those weighing over 80,000 lbs.

The night I was there the plan was to crash an old GMC (or Chevy--memory fails me on that point) medium-duty straight truck, purchased used expressly for this demo, into the massive concrete barrier at 30 mph. At the wheel was a dummy protected by a LifeGuard Technologies lap-shoulder seat belt and 4Front driver‘s air bag. His partner in crime, though, was merely seated in the passenger seat sans belt or any other protective measure beyond clothing.

On they came. The truck started its final journey outside the building on a long straight track (which is used to create head-ons; that must also be a sight!) that brought it inside, where the track continued beside grandstand seating and then into the Wall of Doom. Track is a misnomer-- the truck actually rode on flat pavement and was hooked to an underground cable that provided the power (just like the cable cars in San Francisco) and was released just before the smash-up.

And a smash it was. Frankly, 30 mph looks a hell of a lot faster when you are watching vs. riding. All us witnesses had a view of the driver's side and that dummy was one cool character. He did not flinch as he barrelled right into what could have been the door to the next world for a human driver or passenger who was not adequately protected.

Indeed, the dummy at the wheel remained in his seat while the passenger dummy violently struck the windshield before ending up crumpled over in the driver's lap. Not a pretty sight.

That sight and much more was captured by a bank of high-speed "imagers" that IMMI said capture images at 1,000 frames per second, allowing engineers to study the motion of the truck, the motion of the test dummies and air bag interaction in great detail.


According to IMMI, head injury criteria and recorded chest g‘s indicated the driver would have easily survived this crash-- "the seatbelt retained him in his seat and the airbag inflated to protect his head from impact with the steering wheel." Indeed, he looked fine and unmarked to me afte rthr crash. But the passenger, in my non-medical opinion, was a goner. It looked like his entire torso impacted the glass and IMMI said he "struck the windshield with such force that his head snapped back, and the back of his head contacted his upper back." That can't be good.

I should note the old GMC/Chevy straight job performed admirably. I am no engineer but I can report that my visual inspection revealed the engine and front end had absorbed the impact and the cab's integrity had been preserved-- except for what the happy-go-lucky (me wear a seatbelt?) passenger dummy did to the windshield.

IMMI pointed out there's more than theatrics behind barrier crash testing: "Vehicle engineers want to know if the cab maintains its integrity and preserves survival space for the driver and passenger. They use test data to assess whether body sections and loads remain secure. Test results are also used to evaluate the integrity of the chassis, engine mounts, cab mounts and fuel systems. Crash testing is part of an extensive series of tests that can be conducted to identify each truck‘s unique crash signature."

On top of all that, it is one incredibly convincing way to show anyone that if they refuse to buckle up their seat belt, they are nothing less than a real dummy. And in my opinion, a real threat to themselves and others. Or as IMMI calmly put it: "A comparison of the test video and results from both occupants provides convincing reasons for drivers of heavy trucks to always wear their seatbelts. "

More info on IMMI and CAPE can be found at