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Safety in Accidents:
Hugh DeHaven and the Development of Crash Injury Studies

In 1917, a young Hugh De Haven suffered life-threatening injuries in his quest to become a World War I flyboy. While recovering in the hospital, he became convinced that crashworthy engineering, intended to protect survivors of accidents, would have prevented his most serious injuries. This insight propelled him into his life's work: the epidemiology of accidents. De Haven founded two influential organizations, the Crash Injury Research project in 1942, studying airplane accidents, and the Automotive Crash Injury Research project in 1953, doing the same for automobiles. Believing that statistical analysis would enable engineers—aeronautical and automotive engineers in particular—to eliminate hazardous design features, he lobbied aircraft and automobile manufacturers to improve their products' safety by applying data compiled from real-world events. Through his work, De Haven was instrumental in developing the study of crash injuries into a legitimate science.

In 1916, 22-year-old Hugh DeHaven Jr., who had dreamed of joining the first generation of American flyboys, was rejected by the aviation section of the U.S. Army Air Corps and therefore volunteered for the Canadian Royal Flying Corps in Toronto. On his final training flight a year later, "a crazy young pilot," as DeHaven would describe him, decided to practice gunnery runs with DeHaven's airplane as target. They collided and the two aircrafts plunged 500 feet to the ground. The gunner died but DeHaven survived. His examination of the wreckage convinced him that his most serious injuries had been caused when the massive, pointed buckle on his "safety" belt penetrated his abdomen, rupturing his liver, gall bladder, and pancreas.1

DeHaven completed his military service as a clerk but, oddly enough, a clerk who collected bodies, an assignment that allowed him to observe the similarities between others' injury patterns and his own. Focused on injury prevention, he theorized that wounds might be prevented by redesigning or reconfiguring elements in the plane's interior. As he explained, "it suddenly dawned on me that you can't say that an accident produces injury because [End Page 40] an accident can also produce great safety."2 This insight propelled him into his life's work: the epidemiology of accidents.3 Believing that statistical analysis would enable engineers—aeronautical and automotive engineers in particular—to eliminate hazardous design features, he lobbied aircraft and automobile manufacturers to improve product safety by applying data compiled from real-world events.4 With support from federal agencies and civilian and military aviation concerns, he would spearhead the creation of two influential organizations, the Crash Injury Research project (CIR) in 1942, designed to study injuries in airplane accidents, and the Automotive Crash Injury Research project (ACIR) in 1953 that did the same for automobiles.

DeHaven was, in fact, instrumental in developing crash injury studies into a legitimate science.5 This article focuses on one significant element of that transformation.

"The Father of Crashworthiness Research"

DeHaven was born in 1895, the second child of Louise and Hugh DeHaven, president of DeHaven Manufacturing, a profitable steel and iron concern located in Brooklyn, New York.6 Tragedy struck the family in 1911 when Hugh's sister Mildred perished in a boathouse fire, a horrific event that perhaps initiated DeHaven's later professional focus on accident prevention.7 At age 19 he entered the mechanical engineering program at Cornell University, transferred to Columbia within a year, and completed three years of study before volunteering for the Royal Flying Corps. In 1922 [End Page 41] he would marry Constance Beardsley, who was the daughter of a prominent Brooklyn physician.8

After completing his military service, DeHaven considered himself too old to return to college and instead became a freelance inventor and designer. One of his first products was completed for a San Francisco firm, which hired him in 1920 to design a machine that would bind its wooden shipping crates with wire, then cut the wire. "In those days," DeHaven explained, "all sardines, all canned tomatoes, all canned fruit was [sic] packed in wooden cases which were nailed together and one of the poorest packages in the world is a wooden case, especially if it's filled with a lot of slippery things like tin cans." Because the cases broke apart if the wood split at any point, insurance agents offered discounts to companies that secured their containers with wire. DeHaven's device was so effective that post offices around the country adopted it to bind newspapers.9 In fact, he patented a wide array of products, including a particularly profitable series of razors, blades, and sharpeners that allowed him to retire in 1933.10 His retirement did not last long, however.

DeHaven's interest in crash injury protection reignited in 1935 after he helplessly witnessed a car skidding on wet pavement, flipping over, and landing in roadside brush. The impact had propelled the driver's head onto a sharp steel knob on the dashboard, a blow that would leave a disfiguring scar. It was evident to DeHaven that safety engineering had not progressed since his own trauma in 1917.11 Therefore he undertook to investigate the broader problem, particularly as it related to head injuries, but he faced a number of challenges, not least that of standing: as a retired mechanical engineer, he had neither the institutional support nor the authority to comment on medical concerns. Undeterred, DeHaven conducted three studies on his own between 1936 and 1941: a simple experiment in his own kitchen; informed analysis of published accident reports; and a small clinical study at Bellevue, the nation's oldest public hospital.

Miraculous Survivals

In 1936 DeHaven used his kitchen as a laboratory, dropping eggs onto a slab of half-inch foam to determine the distance at which the foam would cease to protect an egg from breaking. He stopped at the height of ten feet (the limit of his ceiling) with all eggs intact. As he noted, the experiment [End Page 42] demonstrated that while a delicate item required some cushioning, the amount of cushioning need not be great. When DeHaven repeated the experiment outside Cornell University Medical College in 1947, he and his staff dropped eggs onto a three-inch rubber mat from a height of 100 feet; even though they fell at speeds greater than fifty miles per hour and rebounded some thirty feet up before being caught, the eggs did not break.12 This one experiment had vast potential for safety engineering: if as delicate a thing as an egg could survive a significant impact with minimal cushioning, then the mechanical velocities created during the twentieth century did not have to be deadly.

The egg experiment was dramatic, but DeHaven needed to demonstrate that the human body operated in a similar manner, and for this, clinical data were required. Since studying how bodies responded to potentially deadly forces meant exposing human subjects to such situations, DeHaven turned to those he called "involuntary volunteers"—people who had actually experienced considerable physical trauma.13 He found these volunteers in two places: published reports, and patients at Bellevue Hospital.14

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, lurid accounts of accidental death or maiming were regularly featured in newspapers, magazines, and even medical journals. If an individual unexpectedly survived a tremendous fall or a devastating crash, doctors and reporters sought to find plausible explanations. In almost every one of these cases they attributed the absence of life-threatening injury to either simple chance or divine intervention. DeHaven collected clippings and articles featuring "miraculous survivors"—men and women who survived despite having fallen or deliberately jumped from great heights.15 Some accounts even provided the details that DeHaven needed: the height of the fall, the weight of the person involved, and the kind of surface upon which the body landed—data he then used to calculate educated estimates of the forces these bodies endured on impact.

One of the first was a 1919 report published in Guy's Hospital Gazette in which a surgeon described the case of a soldier who fell 320 feet from a cliff onto a sandy beach and survived with only a "tearing wound" on his knee and ten superficial cuts to his scalp. At first, the doctor dismissed the story as a tall tale, thinking the soldier was more likely to have been the victim of an assault. When eyewitnesses verified that the fall had indeed occurred, [End Page 43] he theorized that the soldier survived because his body was relaxed, perhaps in a drunken stupor or epileptic seizure. There was no evidence of alcohol, however, and the family denied the epilepsy. Lacking any other plausible explanation, the doctor finally concluded that "a fairly strong wind" must have blown in from the sea at the time of the fall. Under these conditions, he noted, "there is a very strong [updraft] . . . such an [updraft] might have got in beneath the [soldier's] heavy service greatcoat and exercised sufficient 'parachute' action to considerably break the fall."16

Reexamining the accident some twenty years later from the comfort of his home, DeHaven doubted that the wind had played a role though conceding the possibility. Rather than engaging in guesswork, however, he proposed that "miraculous" survivals might be examined by doctors and engineers working together to discover why such incidents occurred and how to replicate them. His idea foundered on the issue of doctor/patient confidentiality, for physicians refused to share meaningful information about the victims they treated, despite DeHaven's promise not to require or use "personal—non-pertinent—information" that might identify them.17

DeHaven found one of his most detailed case studies in 1939 when the New York Times reported the story of a young woman who "lived to describe the sensation of hurling through space to intended death."18 Apparently, unable to pay for necessary surgery, she rented a room at Detroit's Palmetto Hotel, drank half a bottle of whisky, wrote a note willing her body to science, and jumped from the window. She did not succeed in committing suicide, however; landing not on hard pavement but on a soft, freshly turned flowerbed, she sustained only fractured ribs, a broken wrist, and various cuts and bruises. According to witnesses, she never lost consciousness and was even able to carry on a conversation with people who came to her aid.

After reading the story in the morning paper DeHaven contacted an engineer he knew in Detroit for measurements of every aspect of the fall and a complete accounting of the resulting injuries. While his colleague examined the hotel, DeHaven wrote to the woman's doctor and the superintendent of the hospital where she was taken.19 The two physicians refused his request for information, citing doctor/patient confidentiality. But despite Detroit's remote location and the ethical barrier involved, DeHaven accumulated enough data for useful analysis. The woman, who was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 115 pounds, fell ninety-three feet and left a six-inch depression in the flowerbed. Using the equation for velocity, v = ✓ 2 (gs), [End Page 44] where v is velocity, g is acceleration due to gravity, and s is the distance fallen, and estimating the deductions for air resistance, body movement, and clothing, DeHaven determined that she hit the ground at a speed of about seventy-three feet per second and experienced more than 200 times the force of gravity as she decelerated upon impact.20 Her survival demonstrated that the human body could withstand tremendous forces.

DeHaven reported this case and seven others in his influential article "Mechanical Analysis of Survival in Falls from Heights of Fifty to One Hundred and Fifty Feet," which was published in War Medicine in 1942.21 He followed the same methodology with each study: namely, first collecting all the available information on the incident and then estimating the velocity and deceleration. For example, he collected the data on a 42-year-old woman who jumped from the sixth floor of an unnamed building, landing in a garden patch on her left side and depressing the ground by four inches. When the building superintendent rushed to her aid, she simply raised herself up and said in disbelief, "Six stories and not hurt." Using the equations for velocity and deceleration and attempting to account for air resistance, DeHaven estimated that she hit the ground at a speed of fifty-four feet per second—about thirty-seven miles per hour—and experienced forces of up to 140 times that of gravity.22

DeHaven argued that the eight cases presented "physiologic evidence of well-known mechanical and physical laws." By asking new questions, he gathered evidence suggesting that the body could tolerate a force of up to 200 times that of gravity as long as the experience was brief and the surface impacted was able to distribute or cushion the force. The injury-causing agent was not the force, the speed, or the distance of the fall; as DeHaven pointed out, many of the injuries he described could result from a drop as short as five feet. Rather, it was the surface impacted that determined the extent of injury. As William Haddon and colleagues wrote in introducing a 1964 reprint of the article: "Although breakthroughs in science have very frequently resulted from the recognition and investigation of seeming paradoxes, DeHaven's work provides one of the very few illustrations of this in accident research."23 [End Page 45]

Seeking to establish how much force the skull could withstand, DeHaven also worked at Bellevue in 1941, where administrators allowed him to interview ward patients hospitalized with head injuries. He had thought to complete his investigation within two or three weeks, but instead spent two frustrating months tracking down his interviewees. Because Bellevue had no department dedicated to head injuries, potential subjects were dispersed among four wards, and DeHaven required the cooperation of an already overworked medical staff to identify the relative few who met his criteria: individuals between 20 and 50 years of age and five to six feet in height, who had fallen backward from a standing position, injured the back of their head, and remembered the details of their experience. To complicate matters, neither medical staff nor patients truly grasped his objectives. The doctors felt that "people get into accidents; they fall down. Sometimes they get hurt, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they break their heads or their arms or hips and wind up in the hospital. Estimations of force won't prevent any such injuries."24 As for the patients, they were often suspicious of his motives and reluctant to share the details of their falls with a stranger.25 Despite these obstacles, DeHaven's study did yield certain information: for instance, that the heads of people falling backward from standing heights of five to six feet hit the surface at speeds approaching fifteen miles per hour; and that impacting an unyielding surface at this speed generally led to hospitalization, while hospitalization was less likely to be necessary if the skull had been protected by shock-absorbing materials.26

DeHaven hoped to interest the medical community in his research, but "crashworthiness" proved a difficult sell. As Thomas Gonzales, chief medical examiner of the City of New York, told him in January 1941: "I cannot conceive how you can establish a standard body tolerance to injuries. It is a well-known fact that persons vary in their tolerance not only to drugs but to injuries and that a slight injury in one person might cause death whereas survival would recur in severe injuries in another person."27 Because Gonzales was a nationally renowned forensics expert his opinion was respected, but DeHaven was undeterred.28 True, individuals differed, he responded, but [End Page 46] epidemiological studies demonstrated that there were still factors that could be measured.29 Not yet ready to renounce the possibility of involving doctors in his crashworthiness research, in August 1941 DeHaven asked the secretary of the American Medical Association (AMA)—public-health expert Olin West—if there was any precedent for the interdisciplinary cooperation he was seeking. Finding none in AMA records, West advised him to develop working relationships with rodeo cowboys, since they knew that "complete muscular relaxation" protected them from injuries in a fall. Perhaps these cowboys could help determine the human tolerance to extreme forces.30

The Crash Injury Research Project (CIR)

During the 1930s aircraft manufacturers and airlines alike sought to transform flying into an economically viable form of national transportation—an effort hampered by sensationalist stories of stunt pilots, air races, and the occasional crash. Although DeHaven decried the "fledgling pilots" who were "fouling the nest of a struggling young aircraft industry" with reckless behavior, he acknowledged that even "among aviation people the simplest answer to any idea of increasing safety in flying was if you really want to be safe, the best thing you could do is not fly."31 As William Piper, founder and president of Piper Aircraft Corporation in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, told DeHaven in 1940: "For some time our company has appreciated that if we are to build planes in large quantities, the objection of parents to flying must be overcome. These objections are based upon the fact that flying is dangerous."32 Obviously, there was "a tremendous commercial need for any possible increase of safety in small planes."33

In 1936 DeHaven began his effort to convince the aviation industry to invest in crashworthiness. When the United States went to war in 1941, he turned his attention to the war effort, formulating theories based on the correlation of wound patterns with the arrangement of knobs and switches on the cockpit instrument panel. Unfortunately, he lacked sufficient evidence to support the theories he was developing and, more importantly, many of the authorities he contacted shared the common belief that flying was just inherently dangerous.34 In 1942 a letter of introduction from Yale's influential [End Page 47] John Fulton resulted in DeHaven's meeting with Eugene DuBois, the wartime chair of the National Research Council's (NRC) Committee on Aviation Medicine.35 For DuBois, the importance of DeHaven's work on crashworthiness "was at once apparent" in a time of war.36 With his backing, therefore, DeHaven gained the help of federal agencies and armed-services departments for channeling his research to a willing industry.

On 1 March 1942, with initial support by NRC, DeHaven and a single research assistant opened the CIR project in New York City's Cornell University Medical College (later funding came from the armed services, Civil Aeronautics Authority, and Civil Aeronautics Board). Deceleration forces were tested on the college roof, where DeHaven-designed crash dummies rode in a fuselage rigged to travel down an incline at various speeds before coming to an abrupt halt. The forces exerted on the dummies during deceleration were measured, and slow-motion photography recorded their displacement when the fuselages were stopped.37

To expand his data pool DeHaven enlisted the help of state and federal aeronautics boards and the physicians who attended crash victims, designing an accident report formto guide responders' descriptions. The form was specific, asking about the victim's height and weight, the nature and extent of injuries sustained, the length of unconsciousness, and so on. Injury descriptions were especially detailed, since DeHaven eschewed such common phrases as "serious injury" or "fatality" in favor of a scale listing "ten progressive degrees of injury," from none to the complete destruction of the body. This allowed him to distinguish the degrees of survivable injuries38 (table 1).

In 1949 the trade journal Aviation Week held its first annual awards banquet for winners of the Distinguished Service Award for flight safety. DeHaven was one of the recipients, recognized for "establishing criteria for the development of a safety environment for occupants of aircraft and for securing the recognition of principles of design which will reduce the rate of fatalities in survivable aircraft accidents."39 By highlighting the causes of injury and providing detailed pictures of the effects of crashes on the [End Page 48]

Scale Used by Crash Injury Research in Classifying Degree of Body Injury*
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Table 1. 

Scale Used by Crash Injury Research in Classifying Degree of Body Injury*

[End Page 49]

human body, DeHaven and CIR encouraged doctors, engineers, manufacturers, and policymakers to consider how poor design could unintentionally result in injuries.

Collecting data was only one part of CIR's mission, however. DeHaven and his associates had to convince manufacturers and policymakers to take the project's work seriously. For example, in 1950, CIR researcher Howard Hasbrook used graphic photographs of a plane crash to show the executives of a major airline the dangers presented by poorly designed seating. One image featured an impaled passenger, his torso propelled forward onto metal projecting from the seat in front of him by the impact. Hasbrook then suggested ways that the airline could "de-lethalize" its seats, including increased pitch and padded seatbacks. His presentation was effective. Introduced throughout the industry, de-lethalized seats had the potential to save over a hundred passengers per flight.40

Much of the CIR data demonstrated the potential benefits of passive design changes—that is, changes that passengers did not have to activate— but DeHaven was also interested in active safety measures, among them seat belts for both pilots and passengers (an advocacy shared by insurance companies like Traveler's, which as early as 1921 lamented that aviators all too often flew with their "safety straps" undone, even though it was "absolutely essential that the pilot and passengers in airplanes be strapped to their seats, to prevent falls when the machine turns on its side or on its back").41 Others, however, thought the belts "highly dangerous," among them Dr. Fulton of Yale, who had told NRC in 1941 that the belts were "known to cause fatal lower abdominal injuries even to cutting a person in two."42

DeHaven used the CIR data to challenge these traditional assumptions. In 1953, for example, he and CIR analysts Boris Tourin and Salvatore Macri issued a report, "Aircraft Safety Belts: Their Injury Effect on the Human Body," which compared seatbelts and found that of the 1,000 seatbelt users, 29 percent suffered serious head or other injuries, while 54 percent of the thirty-nine subjects who had not used seatbelts were similarly affected (table 2). After multiple analyses of the data, DeHaven and his coauthors concluded that "serious and critical degrees of head and body injury are associated with and increased by not using safety belts."43 [End Page 50]

Occurrence of Serious and Critical Injuries of the Head and Body in Relation to Use or Nonuse of Belts
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Table 2. 

Occurrence of Serious and Critical Injuries of the Head and Body in Relation to Use or Nonuse of Belts

The Automotive Crash Injury Research Project (ACIR)

Despite his ten-year focus on air safety, DeHaven never lost sight of the importance of crashworthiness for those in automobiles. Still, as he explained in 1942, "we cannot truthfully say that safety is an absolute 'must' in the successful expansion of the automobile industry," which would have to wait until the public was convinced that safety was as "important as beauty in design."44 This had been comparatively easy to accomplish in the case of airliners, since profitability depended on persuading passengers that it was safe to fly. But automobiles were another matter; by the 1940s they were so integral to American life that their potential for causing harm was often overlooked. Quite understandably, automakers did not wish to call attention to their products' crashworthiness, or the lack of it, but this approach eventually raised questions about their responsibility to those who purchased the vehicles.

DeHaven's statistical approach to the problem may have been innovative, but he was neither the first nor the sole investigator of vehicular accidents.45 Professionals from a variety of disciplines had been doing so since the beginning of the twentieth century, most often seeking the causes in road and weather conditions or in drivers' errors. In the 1930s the focus turned to injuries caused by the vehicles themselves. Detroit plastic surgeon Claire Straith, for example, noticed that many of his disfigured patients had been sitting in the front passenger seat—"the death seat," in his words— and thus were propelled on impact into knobs, door handles, and rigid dashboards. Straith patented several types of dashboard padding, including [End Page 51] that used in the 1948 Tucker, and had earlier influenced dashboard design in the 1937 Dodge so that instrument knobs sat flush with the surface when not in use. Straith's limited though significant successes disappeared in the postwar period, when automotive companies enticed consumers with audacious styling rather than engineered safety. As Chrysler's chief safety engineer Roy Haeusler put it, since there was no way to judge the effectiveness of a "safer design," there was no reason to retain it. The Dodge dashboard returned to its projecting knobs.46

In 1949 the rising number of roadway fatalities prompted Elmer Paul of the Indiana State Police to document the number of skull fractures in the accidents he investigated, and to identify interior structures most likely to have caused the injuries. Increasingly convinced of the dangers lurking in contemporary automobile design, he contacted DeHaven in 1952, asking for CIR's help in compiling and interpreting the information he had collected. Their partnership evolved into ACIR, a program focused on building safety into automobiles. CIR and ACIR used similar methodologies, but their respective contexts could not have been more different. ACIR researchers lacked both the authority and the access to materials and engineering information that came with federal oversight, as in the aviation industry. While the government and armed services could compel doctors to work with CIR, ACIR researchers had to enlist physicians, coroners, and state and local police forces and to coordinate their input. They also had to navigate corporate research and public-relations barriers because, unlike in aviation, automobile companies believed that a focus on safety threatened, rather than enhanced, product image and corporate profits.

Earlier, to gauge support for an expanded CIR to include the automotive industry and to set priorities for its safety research, DeHaven invited representatives from all major automakers and traffic-safety groups to a December 1952 planning conference at Cornell University Medical College.47 At the conference he reminded attendees that despite the millions of dollars spent each year to prevent automobile accidents, the number of deaths and injuries continued to climb. He believed that crash injury studies could rationalize ongoing safety efforts, he said, making them more efficient by focusing on one of the more controllable variables: the interior design of automobiles. DeHaven emphasized the commercial benefits of crashworthiness. [End Page 52] Approaching the problem from another angle, Wilson Smillie, head of Cornell's Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, argued that safer automobiles would mitigate a "true menace" to the nation's well-being. He also drew a relationship between highway safety and public health, noting that "death from violence" in automobiles was now dominating morbidity tables, that it had all the epidemiological traits of infectious diseases, and that it could be studied and controlled in the same way.

The automotive study began in January 1953 as a year-long pilot project between the CIR and Paul's crash-injury program in Indiana. State troopers involved with investigating fatal, rural traffic accidents involving only passenger cars wrote detailed reports, took photographs, and distributed special medical forms to the physicians and coroners involved. They then collected the information and sent it to Cornell, where CIR staff members coded the information onto IBM cards for analysis. DeHaven regarded what was now called ACIR a legitimate scientific search for objective information, a search that had as its goal the collection of "accident and correlated injury data whereby safety groups can evaluate safety needs— and engineers can undertake modifications designed to offset chances of needless and excessive injury in future accidents."48

The ACIR methodology was indeed scientific, but the pragmatic question of financial support affected how and to whom data were reported. With a sincere desire to help the automotive industry and with government assistance limited to small grants from the armed services, DeHaven accepted funding from both Ford and Chrysler. Naturally enough, this came with a few strings attached. To protect company secrets and themselves from bad publicity, the two automotive giants insisted that their vehicles be identified as "car A" or "car B" in ACIR reports, and that their engineers receive relevant raw data as soon as it was tabulated. DeHaven was not unwilling to comply. As an engineer himself, he did not want his colleagues denounced as negligent when, in fact, they lacked the information necessary to guide their work, nor did he want his project used to launch unfair attacks upon automakers, as had a January 1953 Magazine Digest article with the sensationalist title "Are Car Manufacturers Killers?" Although these policies seemed necessary at the time, they did ensure that information on automotive crashworthiness did not reach the public immediately, a delay that led Ralph Nader to charge ACIR with "appeasement" and to argue that "the anonymity perpetuated by specialists outside the industry undermines the principle of informed consumer choice and industrial competition which form the bedrock of enterprise economy."49

Researchers began their collection of epidemiological data in Guilford [End Page 53] County, North Carolina. During a sixty-day period, state police and county physicians completed extensive ACIR accident report forms for each crash. For purposes of comparison, random samples of crashes occurring during "peak traffic loads" were gathered from officials in five other counties. Forms were submitted to both the state board of health and the highway patrol and then forwarded to ACIR.50 To ensure physicians' cooperation, ACIR analysts asked the editors of the state medical journals to publish short articles and advertisements explaining the project and its goals. The investigators then repeated the study in several states around the country, including Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. During the first several years of the project the researchers dealt with an annual case load of 2,000 automobile accidents; by 1956 this had grown to almost 8,000 cases, an expansion that required ACIR to move into two floors of a converted warehouse near Cornell Medical College.51 Based on the results of their research, investigators found the instrument panel, steering assembly, windshield, doors, and the grab-bars mounted on the backs of the front seats to be the most dangerous elements of a car's interior.52

"A Noble and Dignified Choice"

In 1954 DeHaven retired for the second time, handing the ACIR leadership over to John Moore at Cornell. Never one to relax, through speaking engagements and tireless lobbying DeHaven continued to use his business and personal relationships in promoting the importance of crash injury studies. He received several awards for his safety work throughout his career, including the Elmer A. Sperry Award in 1967 for his contribution to automobile safety and the Arthur William Memorial Gold Medal from the World Safety Research Institute the following year. Then in August 1970 his wife Constance died of cancer.53 Six years later, while apparently suffering from his own terminal illness DeHaven wrote to his cousin Walter DeHaven. Since Walter was one of his last surviving family members, he wrote, reporters and other researchers might someday want to learn more about "my" life's work, and by this detailed letter Walter would now know what to say.54 On 13 February 1980 DeHaven took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning in his [End Page 54] Lyme, Connecticut, home. John Stapp, a leader in airplane safety, described DeHaven's decision of suicide as a "noble and dignified choice."55

"One Man's Sense of Wonder"

To explore the complex psychological, social, and utilitarian needs served by (or projected upon) the automobile would be to lose focus on DeHaven's career-long investigations into the causes and prevention of injury through safer redesign. Suffice it to say that his evolving methodology, which began with dropping eggs to determine velocity and impact and culminated in statistical analysis of rigorously conducted experiments, established the theoretical foundation for reformers like Nader, something he himself acknowledged in Unsafe at Any Speed: "From this one man's sense of wonder evolved a major life-saving concept of the twentieth century: that the human body can withstand tremendous decelerating forces inflicted by crashes or falls."56

By investigating and analyzing crash injury data DeHaven sought to provide engineers and manufacturers with the information they needed to develop safer products. The field of inquiry he pioneered with ACIR created a new generation of reformers whose efforts influenced public-health policies, legislation, press coverage, and even attitudes toward responsibility, safety, and risk. In a 1959 article for The Reporter, Daniel Patrick Moynihan praised this new breed of epidemiologists, who "represent the only group of disciplined, trained personnel who are equipped to take on this problem" of automobile safety.57 By this, Moynihan meant the engineers and doctors who joined forces to identify design modifications that had the potential to reduce the injuries common to survivable vehicular crashes. Automakers, and even ACIR itself, were less enthusiastic. They praised crash injury research, but claimed its findings were based on a limited number of subjects and that changes in design were unwarranted until a larger sample demonstrated statistically valid evidence. And ACIR researchers admitted that they had yet to produce this evidence. In fact, they were still investigating possible methodologies in 1964 when their annual report declared that "the ACIR staff is still not satisfied that the best approach to the study has been formulated."58 [End Page 55]

By that time, however, reformers had adopted crashworthiness as their goal; they determined that automakers had a duty to provide it and were asking the public to support government regulation. Although the public was not unanimous in its support, those members who regarded roadway accidents as a public-health matter argued that automakers had dragged their feet in the past and, without legislation mandating it, would continue to do so. As Nader put it: "for ten years motorists were used as guinea pigs while the car makers were awaiting statistics on how many of them were being thrown from cars during collisions before deciding to inch forward with the next improvement."59 Increasingly vocal critics advocated that only the federal government could force manufacturers to pad dashboards, remove sharp edges, install collapsible steering columns, and create a crumple zone in the front part of vehicles.

This argument was successful. Congress authorized the creation of the National Safety Bureau (with epidemiologist William Haddon at its head) in 1966, and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration four years later. Consequently such preventive measures as lap and shoulder belts and airbags began appearing in the late 1960s and the 1970s, respectively. Still, for a variety of reasons, some of which were valid, both of these safety devices were either disabled or ignored by a subset of drivers, and protested by at least one manufacturer.60 Further, new vehicle types like the SUV introduced their own characteristic injury patterns, despite the vehicles' popularity with buyers. Such examples as these illustrate how risk often evolves with technology, and they highlight the importance of consumer perceptions and emotions. As Ulrich Beck writes, "it is cultural perception and definition that constitute risk. 'Risk' and the (public) definition of 'risk' are one and the same."61

DeHaven's career as injury investigator and analyst was relatively short, but a transformation in attitudes toward safety occurred during its twenty-year span. When he began his investigations in themid-1930s, falling, flying, and driving were simply accepted as dangerous; there was little understanding of the factors that limited or increased physical harm, and individuals were generally considered responsible for their own well-being. But when he retired in the mid-1950s accident prevention was accepted as quantifiable; there was deeper knowledge of the effects of crashes and collisions on the human body, and responsibility for product-related accidents was being redefined as shared by manufacturers and consumers. DeHaven's role in this transformation was indirect; he left it to others to extend crashworthiness to [End Page 56] other forms of transportation and to worker safety in general, just as he left others to ponder such philosophical questions as the tensions between restraint and freedom.62 As an engineer DeHaven remained a definer and solver of a particular set of problems—crash injuries associated with air and highway travel—injuries that could be ameliorated through safer redesign grounded in statistically significant research.

Amy Gangloff  

Amy Gangloff is an associate professor of history at Lindenwood University-Belleville in Illinois. She is currently working on a book manuscript on automobile safety and risk.


Archival Sources

Medical Center Archives, New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City, Hugh DeHaven Papers (HDH), 1895-1980


DeHaven, "Miraculous Safety" (March 1941)
DeHaven, "Beginnings of Crash Injury Research" (1968)
DeHaven, interview (14 May 1979)
DeHaven, draft interview (n.d.)
Fulton, "National Research Council, Division of Medical Sciences Committee on Aviation Medicine, Report No. 24, Nov. 14, 1941" (1941)
"Progress Report on Automotive Crash Injury Research, October, 1955-March, 1957" (1957)
Turner, "A Fall from a Cliff 320 Feet High without Fatal Injuries" (25 January 1919)
"What Causes Auto Injuries?" (12 September 1953)


Piper to DeHaven, 19 September 1940
Gonzales to DeHaven, 23 January 1941
DeHaven to Gonzales, 24 January 1941
DeHaven to the Superintendent of the Receiving Hospital, 27 March and 25 April 1941
Stanton to DeHaven, 2 May 1941
DeHaven to Stanton, 28 July 1941
DeHaven to West, 10 August 1941
West to DeHaven, 12 August 1941 [End Page 57]
DeHaven to Haddon Jr., 16 May 1974
DeHaven to DeHaven, 3 February 1976
Stapp to Lederer, 2 March 1980
New York Hospital, "Crash Injury Research Catalog" (CIRP)

Published Sources

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1. Hugh DeHaven, "Beginnings of Crash Injury Research," in Accident Pathology: Proceedings of an International Conference, Washington, DC, 6-8 June 1968, box 7, folder "Selected Bibliography," p. 8, in Hugh DeHaven Papers (hereafter HDH), Medical Center Archives, New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City; DeHaven, interview with William Haddon Jr. (14 May 1979, box 5, folder 3, p. 1, in HDH) at the offices of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, witnessed by institute staff. DeHaven's account of the collision differs in certain details from others (for example, one source places him in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps and has his fellow pilot walking away from the crash). I acknowledge that oral histories may be inaccurate to some degree, but have chosen to rely on DeHaven's generally good record keeping and accept his recollection of events, which were then thirty years in the past.

2. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 3, in HDH.

3. Epidemiology is the study of the relationship between disease (broadly defined) and environment. On its history and the role played by engineers, see Mervyn Susser and Zena Stein, Eras in Epidemiology; Walter W. Holland, Jörn Olsen, and Charles du V. Florey, eds., The Development of Modern Epidemiology; Allan Brandt, The Cigarette Century; Robert N. Proctor, Cance Wars; Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs; George Rosen, A History of Public Health; and Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization and the State. DeHaven did not consider himself an epidemiologist, but his emphasis on collecting and interpreting accident-related data earned him acknowledgment as such from public-health doctors like William Haddon Jr.

4. On the history of airplane safety, see Kenneth Werrell, "Those Were the Days"; Christopher Bartlet, Air Crashes and Miracle Landings; and Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents.

5. Kathryn Hilgenkamp, Environment Health, 306, even refers to DeHaven as the "Father of Crashworthiness Research." See also Justin Martin, Nader, 42; and Jeffrey R. Davis, Robert Johnson, Jan Stepanek, and Jennifer A. Fogarty, eds., Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine, 565.

6. "Sees Hat Strike Lost," 3.

7. The family's social prominence ensured that the fire received national coverage: see "Society Girls Perish in Flames," 1; "Perish in Boathouse Fire," 25; "2 Girls Die in Fire," 1; "Two Girls Burned," 2; "New York Girls Die in Boathouse Fires," 1; "Mrs. Barnes Hurries to Son," 2; and "Another May Die from Barnes Fire," 3.

8. "Dr. William E. Beardsley," 27.

9. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 14, in HDH.

10. DeHaven's patents began with the "Box-Strapping Table" (1926), followed by "Razor" (1929), "Combined Razor and Blade Sharpener" (1932), "Kite" (1933), and "Self-Sharpening Razor" (1936).

11. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 3, in HDH.

12. Ibid., pp. 8-10; "Eggs Just Bounce in 100-Foot Drop," 22.

13. Hugh DeHaven, "Miraculous Safety," March 1941, box 6, folder 9, p. 62, in HDH.

14. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 11, in HDH.

15. See the Hugh DeHaven Papers. The selection is limited to the years 1919, 1922, and 1939-1941 and is by no means a complete sampling of freefall cases in general or suicide cases in particular. Some of the accounts contain little more than DeHaven's notes; others provide personal patient information. Here, I have used only those that provide the most information and that are also recounted in newspaper articles or academic journals. I have omitted all identifying information.

16. Philip Turner, "A Fall from a Cliff 320 Feet High without Fatal Injuries," Guy's Hospital Gazette, 25 January 1919, box 5, folder 2, p. 29, in HDH.

17. Letter, Hugh DeHaven to Olin West, 10 August 1941, box 1, folder 3, in HDH.

18. "Girl Falls 10 Stories, Lives and Tells of It," 25.

19. Letters, Hugh DeHaven to the Superintendent of the Receiving Hospital, 27 March and 25 April 1941; letter, James M. Stanton to Hugh DeHaven, 2 May 1941; letter, DeHaven to Stanton, 28 July 1941 (all in box 5, folder 2, in HDH).

20. DeHaven, "Beginnings of Crash Injury Research," in Accident Pathology, box 7, folder "Selected Bibliography," p. 10, in HDH; William Haddon Jr., Edward A. Suchman, and David Klein, eds., Accident Research, 541-43.

21. War Medicine was an American Medical Association periodical printed between 1941 and 1945. William Haddon Jr., famed epidemiologist and "Father of Crash Injury Research" (as opposed to DeHaven's crashworthiness research), identified this article as the first in an evolving literature on injury protection. See William Haddon Jr., Edward A. Suchman, and David Klein, "The Recency of Injury Causation Research," in Accident Research, 538.

22. DeHaven, "Mechanical Analysis of Survival in Falls from Heights of Fifty to One Hundred and Fifty Feet," 66.

23. Haddon Jr., Suchman, and Klein, "The Recency of Injury Causation Research," 539.

24. Hugh DeHaven, draft interview (n.d.), box 3, folder "Misc—Interview Notes," p. 5, in HDH. Although undated, the interview must have occurred sometime between the years 1977 and 1979; the circumstances surrounding the interview are unknown.

25. DeHaven assumed this to be the reason for his lack of success, an assumption that may indicate both his frustration and his attempt to shape the story to underscore the importance of institutional backing.

26. DeHaven, "Beginnings of Crash Injury Research," in Accident Pathology, box 7, folder "Selected Bibliography," p. 10, in HDH.

27. Letter, Thomas A. Gonzales to Hugh DeHaven, 23 January 1941, box 1, folder 3, in HDH. "Mechanical Analysis of Survival" had not yet appeared.

28. Gonzales's work in developing the field of forensics was an important resource for mystery writers—witness his 1946 address to a monthly meeting of the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.; see Roseann Smith and Geoffrey T. Hellman, "Charming Talk," 23. Gonzales coauthored the standard textbook on forensics as well; see Thomas A. Gonzales, Morgan Vance, Milton Helpern, and Charles J. Uberger, Legal Medicine, Pathology and Toxicology.

29. Letter, Hugh DeHaven to Thomas A. Gonzales, 24 January 1941, box 1, folder 3, in HDH. Gonzales's resistance reflected the survival of constitutionalism in medical science. For more on this, see Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation.

30. Letter, Olin West to Hugh DeHaven, 12 August 1941, box 1, folder 3, in HDH.

31. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 4, in HDH.

32. Letter, W. T. Piper to Hugh DeHaven, 19 September 1940, box 1, folder 3, in HDH.

33. DeHaven, interview, box 5, folder 3, p. 6, in HDH.

34. DeHaven, "Beginnings of Crash Injury Research," in Accident Pathology, box 7, folder "Selected Bibliography," p. 9, in HDH.

35. On Fulton, see Jack D. Pressman, Last Resort, chap. 2. DuBois received his medical degree from Columbia and was a nationally recognized authority on metabolism, minimum dietary needs for survival, and the effects of extreme temperatures on the human body. A veteran of World War I, he reenlisted in the Navy Medical Corps during World War II. See "Eugene F. DuBois, Physiologist, 76," 29; "Science: Academicians at Rochester."

36. Letter, Eugene F. DuBois to Joseph C. Hinsey, 23 March 1946, "Finding Aid" folder, in HDH.

37. Ibid.; Karen Beckman, "Doing Death Over"; Greg Siegel, "The Accident Is Uncontainable/The Accident Must Be Contained."

38. Hugh DeHaven, Boris Tourin, and Salvatore Macri, "Aircraft Safety Belts: Their Injury Effect on the Human Body," New York: Crash Injury Research, Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, 1953, box 4, folder 7, pp. 53-55, in HDH.

39. "Flight Safety Awards," 26.

40. Richard Witkin, "Aviation," 15.

41. Traveler's Insurance Company, Airplanes and Safety, 54.

42. J. F. Fulton, "National Research Council, Division of Medical Sciences Committee on Aviation Medicine, Report No. 24, Nov. 14, 1941," box 1, folder 1, p. 4, in HDH. In 1942, DeHaven contributed to the development of the inertia reel for seat belts.

43. DeHaven, Tourin, and Macri, "Aircraft Safety Belts," box 4, folder 7, p. 13, in HDH (emphasis in original).

44. DeHaven, "Miraculous Safety," box 6, folder 9, p. 66, in HDH. DeHaven continued to believe that consumers would refuse to pay more for crashworthiness even if they knew of its benefits; see "Notes on Planning Conference: Auto Crash Injury Research," 16-17 December 1953, "Finding Aid" folder, p. 3, in CIRP.

45. DeHaven's work is distinguished by his efforts to develop a knowledge community, such as that described by Ann Johnson in Hitting the Brakes.

46. Joel W. Eastman, Styling vs. Safety, 184. Eastman is the best source for information on Straith's career and the importance of doctors to automobile safety. See also Eastman, "Doctor's Orders." On automotive safety and its regulation, see David Blanke, Hell on Wheels; John C. Burnham, Accident Prone; Jerry L. Mashaw and David L. Harfst, The Struggle for Auto Safety; and Jeremy Packer, Mobility without Mayhem.

47. Letter, Hugh DeHaven to William Haddon Jr., 16 May 1974, box 6, folder "Correspondence misc. 1936-1980," in HDH. Cornell administrators were initially less enthusiastic than the conference attendees, since adding auto safety to CIR responsibilities would increase project size and cost.

48. "Notes on Planning Conference," 16-17 December 1953, "Finding Aid" folder, p. 3, in CIRP.

49. Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, 63.

50. "What Causes Auto Injuries?" Business Week, 12 September 1953, box 3, folder "newsclips," in HDH.

51. "Progress Report on Automotive Crash Injury Research, October, 1955-March, 1957," box 4, folder 3, pp. 1, 9, in HDH.

52. "14 Most Common Causes of Auto Injuries in the U.S.," 2; Bert Pierce, "Study Shows Cars Can Be Much Safer," 75.

53. "Deaths," 27. The announcement requested well-wishers to make a donation to the American Cancer Society in lieu of flowers.

54. Letter, Hugh DeHaven to Walter DeHaven, 3 February 1976, "Finding Aid" folder, in HDH.

55. Letter, John P. Stapp to Jerome Lederer, 2 March 1980, box 2, folder 3, in HDH. Little is known about the nature of DeHaven's illness. See also: "Finding Aid" folder, in HDH; George Goodman Jr., "Hugh DeHaven, Led in Research on Plane and Automotive Safety," B16. On Stapp, see Nick T. Spark, "46.2 Gs!!! The Story of John Paul Stapp, 'The Fastest Man on Earth,'" and "Crash Safety Visionary" on the Stapp Association's website, http://stapp.org/ (accessed 12 December 2012).

56. Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, 65-66.

57. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Epidemic on the Highways," 19.

58. Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed, 112.

59. Ibid., 116.

60. Drivers claimed that belts were uncomfortable and expressed fears of being trapped within their vehicles. The Ford Motor Company issued notices that air bags were a danger to children riding in the front seat; see Time magazine's "Auto Safety: The Great Air-Bag Debate," 27 September 1971.

61. Ulrich Beck, World Risk Society, 135 (emphasis in original).

62. Like the airlines, railroad companies cooperated with experts and federal commissions to stave off government regulation and cultivate consumer confidence. On the history of railroad safety, see Mark Aldrich's "Combating the Collision Horror," "Peril of the Broken Rail," Death Rode the Rails, and Safety First; R. John Brockmann, Twisted Rails, Sunken Ships; and Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty. On corporate responsibilities to workers, see Christopher C. Sellers, Hazards of the Job; Aldrich, Safety First; Donald W. Rogers, Making Capitalism Safe; Claudia Clark, Radium Girls; and Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial. On driving-related risks, see Blanke, Hell on Wheels; and Packer, Mobility without Mayhem.