The nation’s punching bags

They hit the wall at 80 km/h: tough crash test dummies put their “bones” on the line in the cause of safety, but they are also highly sensitive measuring instruments. A job portrait.

There are dummies in all sizes, from babies to overweight people. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

There are dummies in all sizes, from babies to overweight people. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Crash tests are always exciting. Glass splintering, metal crunching, and the airbag exploding out of the steering wheel. Generally there’s a dreadful bang and when it’s all over everyone involved knows more than they did before. But does anyone ever ask about us dummies? We do our job, which means putting our steel bones and rubber-covered metal heads on the line in the service of accident research. The resulting data is stored on a computer and evaluated down to the last detail. The data is collected using up to 150 measurement probes and sensors, which are fastened to critical parts of my body. That’s my head, neck, ribcage, thighs, shins, and ankles. These are the areas where I am particularly sensitive. Just like a human being.

It’s hard to imagine, but one single crash can produce tens of thousands of measurements, which can be used to identify and minimize the risk of injury. Here in the DEKRA Crash Test Center there are around 200 crashes a year, carried out on behalf of vehicle manufacturers or insurance companies or for research purposes.

“Manni” is one of 25 dummies

We are a group of 25 dummies from the latest generation: the Hybrid 3 category. Nine of us live here in Neumünster. We even have our own room that they like to describe as a laboratory, which is carefully protected from prying eyes. Or perhaps it’s kept secure because we are so valuable? Anyway, it looks like a huge safe. My name is Manfred or Manni, as they call me affectionately, particularly when the going gets tough.

I was born on June 1, 2005 in Plymouth, Michigan, where the largest dummy manufacturer in the world has its headquarters. They’ve even noted my birthday on my resume, which also lists everything that my 78-kilo body has had to put up with.

During crash tests with a dummy in a car, different impact scenarios are tested. In this case, the lateral impact with a tree. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve Dummies also have to withstand frontal collisions. Photo: Thomas Küppers The skeleton is much more solid than the one of a human being and is fitted with hundreds of sensors. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve Carsten Steppan is applying the standardized working clothes to the dummy. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve By means of a small crane, "Manni" - weighing 78 kilos - is placed into the car. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve Carsten Steppan fastens the dummy's seatbelt. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve Also as a front-seat passenger, "Manni's" seatbelt has to fit correctly. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve After every forth crash test, "Manni" is sent well packed by shipping to Bergisch Gladbach where he is calibrated in a specialized company. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Comparability is everything

In the laboratory, the working day generally begins at about eight. I spend the night sitting on a frame similar to a wheelchair, which makes sure that I don’t get worn out. It’s much the same as with humans: constant stresses are not good for your joints. Because then there’s the risk that the figures obtained in the crash test will be incorrect or unusable. I also don’t like extremes of temperature, which is why our laboratory is kept at a constant 20 degrees Celsius. The worst is if a test starts very early. Then I have to sit all night in the car, supported by a small crane, with a special air conditioning system maintaining the cor-rect temperature. It’s not exactly comfortable for a man who is 1.75 meters tall. Sometimes they even cover me with blankets so that I don’t get cold. Here at DEKRA they look after us very well. They think of everything: in the linen closet there’s even a spare suit for each of us in a shade of heather purple.

Lightweight cotton clothing, made from fine ribbed jersey, is mandatory. It’s laid down by law. I think they really appreciate us. Even though more and more preliminary tests are now being carried out in a virtual environment, Peter Rücker, who is Team Leader Crash Tests in Stuttgart, says that there are no alternatives to us. Who else would want to be a punching bag in the cause of safety?

Even dummies cannot stand everything. They do not tolerate falls out of the window or down the stairs as well as water or fire. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Even dummies cannot stand everything. They do not tolerate falls out of the window or down the stairs as well as water or fire. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Above 50 km/h, it gets life-threatening

In the 1950s, the industry even used corpses in crash tests. That’s hard to imagine now. It’s much easier with us. We are standardized and so we provide reproducible results. Also they need different dummies for different accident scenarios. We not only drive cars and ride motorbikes, we also sit on bicycles and in child seats, and act as pedestrians. Men, women, and children — all with a specially designed “skeleton”. And because people are getting increasingly overweight, I even have relatives who are equally plump.

Head Injury Criterion (HIC) is an integral value of head acceleration. It is used in crash test standards throughout the world due to its good comparability. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Head Injury Criterion (HIC) is an integral value of head acceleration. It is used in crash test standards throughout the world due to its good comparability. Photo: Heinrich Holtgreve

Although we have to withstand a lot, we are not immortal. Only recently a customer wanted me to jump out of a second floor window. Another one planned to push me down the cellar stairs. We don’t like that sort of thing. And we’re not fond of water or fire either! But we can withstand much more than the human body. I only need to mention the word HIC. This stands for head injury criterion and is used to measure head impacts. It is the integral value of head acceleration during a monitored time interval (see the box). The limit is 1,000. After this the injury becomes life-threatening for humans and this can happen in a frontal impact at 50 km/h. Car manufacturers are trying to design their vehicles so that the HIC only reaches one third of the limit.

How do I know that? Because of accident research using dummies. If the driver doesn’t wear a safety belt or hits the steering wheel of an older car hard, the HIC rapidly reaches 2,000 or 3,000.

Rest and recuperation 

After every fourth crash test, I have to take a break. I travel to a specialist company in Bergisch-Gladbach for recalibration. Our laboratory manager Carsten Steppan, who is also responsible for the measurement systems in Neumünster, unscrews my legs and puts me in a big packing crate. I’m then generally sent off on my journey with an express courier. It’s like a holiday for me. The regular checkups are carried out to make sure that my measurement equipment is still functioning properly.

The laboratory checks every part of my body with great care. All the parameters must remain the same to ensure that the results of the tests are comparable. But I sometimes travel as a passenger in a car, for example when another test facility needs me urgently. Recently we were on our way to Berlin and I very much wanted to have a go in the driver’s seat, but that’s really not possible — or not yet at least.

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