It has been said that the young have few heroes today, but that may be so because many of the heroes there are in America remain unsung and unsuitable for the required antics that attract mass media attention.
Two such stalwarts in the modern history of of motor vehicle safety were Dr. William Haddon, Jr., and engineer, Henry Wakeland. It is probable that few medical and even fewer engineering students today or yesterday have ever heard of these two men and the remarkable ways they connected their knowledge with their civic duties. Models of sensitivity in their respective fields, Haddon and Wakeland, afflicted with serious ailments, passed away during the past month — the Doctor at 58 years and the Engineer at 62 years of age. The achievements each invite celebration.
Haddon, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard Schools of Medicine and Public Health, went into an unorthodox kind of preventive medicine. No Park Avenue or Scarsdale practice for him. He wanted to save the lives of thousands of people who never came close to him ass a patient.
For ten years he labored in the New York State Department of Public Health — the incubation period for his strategy of safety interventions during the pre-crash, crash and post-crash phases of motor vehicle casualties. Thus, in the pre-crash phase, he saw the control of lethal mechanical energy as coming about, for example, through reduction of drunken driving, better vehicle handling, lights, tires and braking, or less slippery road surfaces.
In the crash phase , the engineering design of the vehicle can absorb or spread out the collision forces, before they reach the passengers, through collapsible steering columns, air bags, padded dash panels and the like. During the post-crash phase, lives can be saved by reduction in post-crash fires, access to crash sites and prompt treatment or evacuation by ambulances or helicopters.
Haddon’s analysis was both more complex and graphic than can be described in a few words. He wrote books, articles, testimony over a quarter-century of refining concepts that pushed the auto industry-indentured traffic safety establishment toward grudging recognition of safety engineering needs.
He called his matrices “aids in sorting questions and knowledge concerning casual factors, in considering resource allocations, and in analyzing the interrelationships and influence of various intervention strategies and tactics on the bottom-line injury and other losses of concern.”
In 1966 he moved to Washington to become Lyndon Johnson’s first auto safety regulator. After Nixon’s election, he left to become head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and turned the insurance industry toward a more critical posture of testing and disclosure regarding defective vehicles. No one had done that before Haddon.
Wakeland made his contribution as a moonlighting safety advocate. During the day, the former American Motors engineer worked at Sperry Rand in New York. But by night, working out of his Tudor City apartment, he issued forth with reams of letters to editors, letters to legislators, memoranda to any group or individual who wanted to know how cars would be built to be safer in crashes.
Finally, his work caught the ear of NY State Senator Edward Speno who, with Wakeland’s counsel, passed New York’s mandatory seat belt installation law and set up the New York Safety Car Program to build experimental safety cars suitable for mass production. Wakeland headed this Program which helped inform key members of Congress about the need for auto safety legislation.
Hank Wakeland was a calm teacher without portfolio. He was a constant hairshirt to the Society of Automotive Engineers and its obeisance to the auto companies in its closed procedures, non-disclosures and lowest common denominator safety standards. He challenged the SAE committee members for placing their company allegiance over their professional independence. He showed that where GM and company did not want standards issued, as in the area of crashworthiness, the SAE simply did not issue any standards.
He too moved to Washington and in 1967 joined the National Transportation Safety Board and later served on several official committees relating to vehicle safety standards.
Wakeland understood, as few engineers do, that to be an effective contributor of engineering inputs to public safety policies, a knowledge of political power is useful. So he added to his degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University another master’s degree in political science from New York University twenty years later.
These two citizens leave a legacy of safer highway travel for millions of Americans. Haddon picked up the field of auto safety, ridden as it was with the put-all-the-blame-on-the-driver diversions and helped place engineering responsibility on the automobile companies. He took the field from hunch and surmise to a new level of rigorous analysis and
Wakeland showed us, by his example, how much more that thousands of engineers can contribute in their spare time to human health and safety, if they exercise a measure of professional independence from their companies. Their families can be so proud that their country has been so enriched.