Friday 18 September 2015

Shut up and belt up

A few years ago there was a chilling TV ad put out by the Irish Road Safety Authority RSA in which an image of a car-full of happy young people is voice-overed with "in 40 seconds young Sean is going to kill his girl-friend" . . . because he'd forgotten his seat-belt and in 50ms will nut his g-f to death from behind. When I was a nipper we'd all pile into the back of the family station-wagon on long journeys in a hugger-mugger of blankets, books, pencils and gumboots. Everything, including three small children, was loose and unrestrained and it was all travelling along some wretched road at 100km/h. Luckily my father hadn't yet taken to falling asleep at the wheel - that came later with the type-II diabetes. In the mid-to-late 60s, seat-belts started to get talked about as a new invention and most opinion was that they were a bore and a chore and probably pointless. Everyone knew someone who had been thrown from a moving car into some bushes just before the vehicle plunged over a cliff to burst into flames on impact.

If one man deserves the credit for the fact that everyone I know wears a seat-belt all the time while in a moving car, it is John P. Stapp, whom we met yest travelling as fast a jet-plane along a railway track in the interests of research. As well as being a medical doctor, Stapp was a full colonel in the USAF and his team was finding out what needed to be done to minimise the death and injury sustained in a plane-crash. Stapp was also moonlighting with experiments putting cars through their final spectacular paces into brick walls. The USAF bean-counters and bureaucrats tried to put a stop to these unmilitary activities until Stapp pointed out that more pilots died in auto-wrecks than plane-crashes. Seat-belts and their mandatory use have been the main force in reducing relative road-deaths to 1/3 of their levels in the 1940s. That's still 43,000 deaths (and 1.9 million road accidents that cause physical injury) every year in the US. President Johnson mandated seat-belts in the USA in 1966.  To put an image in your head, 43,000 coffins is a football-field covered so you can't see the grass and stacked 10 deep.

Colonel Stapp convened the first workshop on car safety and engineering in 1955, that developed into an annual Stapp Car Crash Conference which is a forum for discussion about how to kill fewer people with cars. In 1955, Stapp invited a variety of stake-holders to Holloman Air Base near Alamogordo, NM: doctors, auto manufacturers, academics, the military, traffic analysts and safety consultants.  Over the years, they have changed the interior and exterior of cars so that they are more effective at "packaging people" for safe-delivery. Not just seat-belts and the details of their design and anchorage: rear 'parcel' shelves are no longer available to serve as head-height missile-launchers; hard/soft plastic lines the interiors of modern cars; bumpers have been totally redesigned and crumple zones are now an integral part of car design.  When I had my little tip two years ago, I left the road, mounted the ditch and stove in the off-side front corner of the Yaris but the air-bags didn't blow because the controlled structural failure had absorbed much of the deceleration energy.

The car industry was extremely unwilling to embrace seat-belts to begin with. They felt that having them hanging in every car would imply that cars were not safe and cause a tumble in sales.  It is the same argument that refuses to have explicit codes-of-conduct: the existence of protective measures alerts people to danger and organisations would rather that possibility never enters anyone's mind. But putting your head in the sand never averted danger made it harder to escape it when it arrived. If you want to minimise the chance of your being part of next year's 43,000 cohort of the dead, you can shut up with your anecdote of Gt Uncle Jim escaping from his tractor when he drove if off the pier in Ballyhack and belt-up

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