About 12 years ago a 9-year-old girl was riding her bicycle near her suburban home outside of Washington when she struck the rear bumper of a parked automobile. The collision hurled her flush into the sharp, protruding tail-fin on the car. She was fatally impaled. Such tragedies are not freak accidents. Hundreds of thousands of pedestrains, cyclists and motorcyclists are injured every year in collisions with vehicles — stationary or moving — whose sharp exterior ornamentation inflict additional injury. For not only are these protruding ornaments, blade-like front fenders, cutting grill patterns, sharp headlight eyebrows and other designs hostile to pedestrians, but they are also purely stylistic in purpose. Their prohibition can lower the cost of a car.
The auto companies have long known about the devastating effect that their lethal styles have on pedestrians. Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates observed that human beings are more vulnerable to sharp points that concentrate force than to flat surfaces that distribute it. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and others could have heeded the good doctor’s advice years ago, but they did not.
OVER A DECADE ago, Dr. William Haddon pointed out the close parallels in design between yesteryear’s weapons — “The edges of swords, the points of spears, war clubs, tomahawks, battering rams, the prows of triremes” — and the front-end designs of many cars on the highways.
Later, as federal auto safety chief, Haddon pointed out these car hazards in a visit to the Ford Motor Co. in 1968. But his host, Henry Ford II, ridiculed and dismissed his comments. The domestic manufacturers also ignored Haddon’s letter, dated Dec. 21, 1967, discussing actual cases of serious injury to pedestrians which flatter exterior vehicle design could have easily avoided.
In the same month, Haddon issued a proposed standard for pedestrian protection. But the Department of Transportation still has not issued this standard as law, nearly a decade later. The only rule issued for non-motorists’ protection came out in 1972. It prohibited “The use of wheel nuts, wheel discs, and hub caps that constitute a hazard to pedestrians and cyclists.”
Almost 15 years ago, Henry Wakeland, a former engineer for American Motors, proposed the Automobile Stylists Keel-Hauling Test, to be called after its similarity to a procedure once used in the British Navy. Wakeland’s suggestion called for the person styling the automobile to be drawn slowly across its surfaces by ropes attached to the wrists. The stylist, protected only by “light summer clothing,” would be “able to stop the test and make design correction for local injury sources when he considers changes desirable.”
Some people think that when cars strike people there is little that can be done, anyway. Not true. Most pedestrians and cyclists struck by cars survive, but their injuries are often severely worsened because of the dangerous way the cars are designed. Even among the 13,000 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities each year, lives could be saved.
Both Wakeland and Haddon have collected many cases which prove their point. For example, a I7-year-old youth was injured by a 1967 Pontiac GTO traveling at about 30 mph. The imprint of the lance-like structure above the right headlight fitted exactly the deep laceration on his thigh. A hood ornament penetrated fatally the head of a child in another case.
Last November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against Ford Motor Co. in a case involving a motorcyclist who was struck and injured by a 1968 Mercury station wagon. The injured man suffered severe leg damage due largely to a sharply pointed triangular metal projection behind the plastic lens hood of the Mercury’s turning signal. The jury in the lower court awarded him $300,000 of which Ford Motor Co. was ordered to pay $250,000.
This is a judicial breakthrough for pedestrians. Most previous pedestrian cases borough against “war chariot designs” of the auto industry have lost in court. Perhaps more such lawsuits along with new leadership by the Department of Transportation will result in the auto industry preferring engineering integrity over stylistic pornography.