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Did You Know?

A crash course in transportation safety

James J. Ryan in his crash lab.

James J. Ryan was not above accessorizing his lab coat with a football helmet to be a subject in his own crash tests.

The next time you take a safe road trip or your flight touches down accident-free, say thanks to a man named Crash -- James "Crash" Ryan, a mechanical engineer and innovator in transportation safety who taught for three decades at the University of Minnesota.

Ryan's best known for designing and patenting the automatic retractable seat belt that's standard issue in today's cars. His seat belt saved more than 195,000 lives from 1975 to 2004, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Ryan earned his nickname through a hands-on, head-first approach to research. Wearing a Gopher football helmet for protection, he and a brave group of graduate students drove rail-mounted sleds into barriers, dropped vehicles from cranes and in one case crashed a modified Ford into a brick wall outside the Mechanical Engineering building -- all to simulate the effects of a collision.

Besides his automatic seat belt, which was the first to allow a full range of motion but then lock tight on impact, other automobile safety features that Ryan's research contributed to include collapsible steering-wheel columns, padded dashboards and hydraulic bumpers.

Earlier, in the late 1940s and early 50s, Ryan had achieved another breakthrough that's still protecting travelers today. He invented the first "black box" flight recorder to capture information about air crashes and pilot performance. Ryan's prototype worked by recording information from sensors on the plane as impressions on metal film.

Ryan was an advocate for safety as well as an innovative designer. He lobbied Washington to pass the laws that made flight recorders mandatory on commercial flights, and his support for minimum safety standards for cars helped drive the creation of NHTSA in 1970.

The University continues to be a leader in transportation safety research. The emphasis today is on preventing, rather than surviving, accidents. The Center for Transportation Studies, for example, is studying how Global Positioning System (GPS) units can help parents monitor and improve the driving of their teenage kids -- part of a recently-awarded $16 million research grant from the Department of Transportation.

Further reading

UMNnews: His crashes helped make ours less dangerous

UMNnews: Getting smarter at getting safer

U of M Institute of Technology hosts lecture on legacy of auto safety pioneer James 'Crash' Ryan

Center for Transportation Studies


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