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> The Science of Deceleration

In 1942, Cornell University began studying pilot impact injuries inside airplane cockpits. By 1951, this program included the Automotive Crash Injury Research (ACIR) project. Cornell University's Medical College conducted automobile crash tests with dummies and studied accident survival in relation to door security, rollover hazards, and bodily impact inside a car. The ACIR staff recommended the addition of seat belts, dashboard padding, crashworthy door locks, and recessed-hub steering wheels to production cars.

In 1957, Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory built a radically redesigned safety car for a public tour sponsored by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, a contributor to the ACIR project. The Cornell-Liberty Survival Car featured seat belts, bucket seats, crash padding, sliding doors, side impact protection, and steering levers. A counterpoint to futuristic “dream cars” that appealed to emotion and imagination, the Cornell-Liberty Survival Car embodied sobering, practical designs that promised to save lives. Padding and seat belts became standard equipment on production cars in the 1960s.

Cornell-Liberty Survival Car, 1957
Cornell-Liberty Survival Car, 1957
John Paul Stapp in Sonic Wind No. 1 rocket sled before a record-setting 632 mph ride, December 10, 1954

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lt. Col. John Paul Stapp, an Air Force physician, put seat belts in the news by strapping himself to a rocket-powered sled on rails. Stapp wore a harness while being subjected to rapid acceleration and sudden deceleration. He proved that a person restrained by belts could withstand forces of more than 46G and sudden stops at speeds of 632 mph or more with only minor injuries. These experiments were aimed at devising the best forms of pilot protection during ejection from supersonic aircraft.

In the 1950s, Stapp turned his attention to automobile collisions. He conducted crash tests at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and studied fatalities in Air Force vehicles. Stapp became a leading advocate of seat belts for motorists and testified before a House subcommittee on auto safety.

In 1955, Stapp participated in a Car Crash Conference at Holloman Air Force Base under the auspices of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Later named in honor of Stapp, the conference became an annual event under the auspices of the Stapp Association.

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