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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Head Knocker/Hugh DeHaven and Collision Safety

Sir Isaac Newton watched the falling apple and his observation made scientific history. A young pilot lay in the hospital in 1917 recovering from a mid-air collision with another pilot training over Texas. He, too, thought about his fallen Jenny and how he managed to survive a downward spin from 500 feet with only two broken legs, bruises and a ruptured pancreas.

While other pilots thought his surviving the crash was a matter of luck, young Hugh DeHaven believed there were reasons rooted in physics which were more interesting to explore. He began to note the connections between pilot head injuries and unyielding structures in the cockpits. The following year he studied head injuries of patients at Bellevue Hospital who had slipped on ice or fallen on streets.

Recalling his findings years later, DeHaven made a point now obvious, but back in the years after World War I it definitely was at the frontier of safety thinking:

“Roughly, I figured that a speed of 15 mph could cause head injury if the head hit something solid. It also was evident that even a small amount of yielding or shielding provided dramatic protection. Later I was to find that a velocity of 50 mph against a surface that would bend or dent five or six inches caused less force on the head than slipping and hitting ice.”

Describing himself as an independent designer of equipment and an inventor, DeHaven kept observing, thinking and making his calculations for some 15 years. He would study how people survived usually lethal falls with minor injuries.

One case involved a man on a 175-foot smokestack who fell to the ground on a pile of loose rubble. After a day in the hospital, the worker was back on the job. DeHaven estimated that he had struck the ground with a force of just -under 25,000 pounds but was unhurt.

The designer investigated other free falls and his analyses led to his central finding that the human body could absorb substantial crash forces if these forces were dissipated in time and space. In short, a person striking a padded dash panel in a car crash could survive where a Similar impact on another sharp-edged panel could be fatal.

During the ’30s DeHaven badgered the small aviation establishments with his ideas for improving pilot safety in crashes. His persistence finally was recognized by aviation safety officials at the U.S. Department of Commerce but they still did not fund further research. Finally, following his study of survival in free falls which subsequently appeared in the journal War Medicine, DeHaven found a research home at Cornell Medical College in New York City.

As a first-year law student I remember reading this article with fascination in the mid-’50s during my study of automobile safety deficiencies and legal standards of care. It was short, concise and clear. The conclusion laid the basis for the later consumer drive for auto safety legislation in 1965-1966 and remains as the framework for crash-worthiness innovation and law enforce­ment.

DeHaven’s words are worth quoting: “The human body can tolerate and expand a force of 200 times the force of gravity for brief intervals during which the force acts in transverse relation to the long axis of the body.

“It is reasonable to assume that structural provisions to reduce impact and distribute pressure can enhance survival and modify injury within wide limits in aircraft and automobile accidents.”

The studies of automobile crash injuries at Cornell Medical School in the ’50s were the spark for the challenge to the auto companies in the ’60s. The work at Cornell, on a tiny budget supplied by the U.S. government, provided the crucial contrast with the do-nothingness of the multi-billion dollar corporations in Michigan on matters of safety as they proliferated their stylistic vehicle pornography. It was a contrast that would deeply impress the congressional lawmakers during the hearings in the mid-’60s.

Hugh DeHaven died recently at age 85. Last year he received an award from the Department of Transportation for his pioneering research.

But the scientific and engineering establishment -never recognized his signal contributions. After all, he had no advanced degrees, produced little theoretical breakthroughs and did not invent specific products for sale. All he did was to doggedly launch a school of applied engineering which could save lives wherever in the world motor vehicles crash or people strike immov­able, man-made objects.

Human beings are alive today who owe it to Hugh DeHaven. But they don’t know his name. Some day there should be a Nobel Prize for such compassionate creativity which generates knowledge and takes it all the way to its life-saving purpose.