“Crash” Was His Name; Car Safety Was His Game

Forty years later, the innovations of a University of Minnesota engineering professor are still saving lives.

In a most literal sense, James “Crash” Ryan earned his nickname. A professor in the University of Minnesota’s mechanical engineering department from 1931 to 1963, Ryan not only crafted safety features for cars but also crash-tested them himself.

Ryan, who worked as a Westinghouse engineer before joining the university faculty, is perhaps best known for inventing the black box (the flight data recorder) used on airplanes. His research on car safety began in the late 1940s. “He felt that he could make a contribution in the area of transportation safety,” says Max Donath, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute. Donath recently spoke about Ryan’s legacy at the university.

In his pursuit of innovation, Ryan directed dramatic—and sometimes risky—demonstrations to show how his inventions could improve car safety. In July 1957, during an episode of NBC’s Today Show, he used 80-foot cranes to lift an automobile 50 feet in the air, then let the car plummet to the ground, simulating a crash at 40 miles per hour. Historic video shows the car’s front end crumpling like an aluminum can in a crusher, leaving to the imagination what would have happened had passengers been inside. “I believe that you can build an automobile so you cannot get hurt in it,” Ryan later said in an interview. “It can be done … so that people cannot get hurt at all under normal conditions.”

No one could have imagined how far Ryan would go to prove his point. In the back parking lot of the university’s mechanical engineering building, he’d place test dummies in a 1956 Pontiac, then remotely direct the car to drive head-on into a concrete barrier at 25 miles per hour. Ryan would count down “Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Fire!” and the Pontiac would take off and crash into the embankment seconds later. The unrestrained dummies would be thrown violently into the windshield. Repeating the test in a car that was equipped with Ryan’s inventions—retractable seat belts; a padded, retractable steering column; a recessed dash; and hydraulic bumpers—the dummies were thrust forward from the impact but remained in their seats.

In time, Ryan became his own favorite test subject. Sporting a shiny, white football helmet, he would strap himself into a car or to a “crash sled”—a padded chair on a fast track—give his trademark countdown, and sit straight-backed as he accelerated into a barrier at 20 mph. (Eventually, his students and other daring individuals sat in the crash seat during these experiments. A frame of archived film shows Antarctic explorer and mountain climber Peter Schoeck in the crash sled, fiddling nervously with the retractable seat belt that had kept him safe during the three-second stunt.)

“What Crash Ryan designed was a retractable seat belt that always maintained a certain amount of tension, but could readily give under normal driving conditions. If there was sudden deceleration, the belt would lock up,” says Donath.

Impact of his Inventions
In 1963, Ryan received a patent for the retractable seat belt. For years, he tried to convince Detroit automakers that it should come standard in American cars. “It’s such a silly thing, to allow people to become a statistic, by reason of death due to an automobile accident,” he said in interviews.

Repeatedly, his appeals fell on deaf ears—until the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s 1965 book detailing car manufacturers’ reluctance to introduce safety features. (Nader’s book contains references to Ryan.)

Nader’s—and Ryan’s—campaign for government-mandated safety regulations paid off in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act. As a result of those pieces of legislation, all U.S. passenger vehicles were required by law to have seat belts starting in 1968. According to a 2004 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, safety belts saved close to 180,000 lives between 1975 and 2003.

In addition to being a prolific inventor, Ryan was a likeable mechanical engineering professor. Rich Tennis, a former student of Ryan’s and now a semi-retired engineering consultant in Eureka, Illinois, recalls Ryan’s infectious smile, the Kris Kringle-like twinkle in his eye, his ability to make students think outside the box, and his dedication to making safety enhancements a part of ordinary people’s lives. Says Tennis: “During class, he told us, ‘For anyone who buys a car while attending my class, I will give them a free set of seat belts that I have invented.’ Of course, buying a car as a student was not going to happen, so it was a pretty safe offer on his part.”

Ryan died in 1973 at the age of 69. Two years before his death, Ryan donated many of his notes, early prototypes, and crash cars to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Le Claire, Iowa, where he was born in 1903. The items remain on display.

“Even now, every time I put on my seat belt, I think of Crash Ryan,” says Tennis. “His seat belt, and that wonderful twinkle in his eye.”—J. Mettner