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> Publicizing Interior Hazards
 
Reader's Digest article about dangerous interior car designs, August 1935
Reader's Digest article about dangerous interior car designs, August 1935

Automobile safety problems received national attention in 1935 when Reader’s Digest published "--And Sudden Death." Publisher DeWitt Wallace had seen the aftermath of an accident, and he asked Joseph C. Furnas to write an article about auto fatalities as a social and technological problem. Furnas recalled, “Wallace had already been sensing a rising tide of public outrage over the skyrocketing highway death toll.”

Laced with candor, gore, and realism, “—And Sudden Death” described motorists who struck interior hardware and suffered mutilation. Furnas blamed drivers for accidents and tried to shock them into better behavior. He did not recommend adding seat belts and other safety equipment; in fact, he advised readers to hope that they would be “thrown out as the doors spring open.” Furnas philosophized, “At least you are spared the lethal array of gleaming metal knobs and edges and glass inside the car.”

Millions of reprints were mailed. Furnas recalled, “Judges were sentencing speeders to copy it out fifty times or go to jail; insurance companies were handing out free copies to their customers; oil companies were distributing it at gas pumps.”

In the 1930s, Dr. Claire L. Straith, a Detroit plastic surgeon who specialized in reconstructing the faces and skulls of automobile accident victims, began a one-man campaign to eliminate injuries caused by steel dashboards, protruding knobs, hook-shaped door handles, and other interior hazards. He installed lap belts in his own cars, and he designed and patented a dashboard crash pad. Dr. Straith became nationally known for his one-man safety campaign; his ideas were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he was often cited in newspapers.

Dr. Straith wrote a persuasive letter to Walter P. Chrysler, and Chrysler Corporation redesigned its interiors with safety in mind. The 1937 Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, and Imperial cars didn't have seat belts and padded dashboards, but they had recessed knobs, rubber buttons, curving door handles that could not snag motorists, and padded seat tops. This was the first time that an automobile manufacturer promoted streamlined design for safety instead of styling.

Custom dashboard pad installed in Dr. Claire L. Straith’s personal car in the late 1940s
Custom dashboard pad installed in Dr. Claire L. Straith’s personal car in the late 1940s
At Dr. Claire L. Straith’s recommendation, knobs in the 1937 Plymouth were recessed and could not cause puncture wounds in an accident. But the safety improvements were short-lived; protruding knobs returned in subsequent years, and Chrysler Corporation advertised other novel features in its annual model rollouts.
At Dr. Claire L. Straith’s recommendation, knobs in the 1937 Plymouth were recessed and could not cause puncture wounds in an accident. But the safety improvements were short-lived; protruding knobs returned in subsequent years, and Chrysler Corporation advertised other novel features in its annual model rollouts.
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