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James J. Ryan as a subject in one of his own crash tests

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

His crashes helped make ours less dangerous

The legacy of U research pioneer James J. Ryan

By Rick Moore

November 22, 2005

Fifteen minutes before a University professor spoke about the legacy of University research pioneer James J. "Crash" Ryan, a television commercial airing in the commuter lounge at Coffman Memorial Union provided the perfect foreword.

The commercial touted one of automobile manufacturer Hyundai's new models as having a five-star crash rating. Minutes later, mechanical engineering professor Max Donath began describing just how instrumental Ryan was in ushering in an era of increased automotive safety, decades before our current formal safety standards. Most notably, in 1963, Ryan received a patent for the first automatic retractable safety seat belt. But he worked tirelessly in the years leading up to that patent to advance other safety features in automobiles and to help make the case for increased car safety.

Ryan joined the mechanical engineering faculty at the University in 1931 and retired in 1963--the year of his seat belt patent. His research on car safety began in 1952, and in the ensuing decade he conducted dozens and dozens of groundbreaking--sometimes in the literal sense--experiments on automobiles. Donath showed a number of videotape clips of these experiments at his presentation on November 15. In one, a vehicle was dropped from a crane to the ground to simulate a crash speed of 40 mph. Other experiments had vehicles ramming into barriers outside of the mechanical engineering building on the East Bank of the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. And in others, sleds were driven into a barrier indoors with Ryan--restrained with a safety belt, of course--behind the wheel.

"I don't think we can say enough about his contributions to the safety of the vehicles we drive every day," said Donath. "He's a lasting legacy of what University of Minnesota research has contributed nationally."

In case it wasn't obvious by now, Ryan acquired the "Crash" nickname for his willingness to avail himself (and occasionally some of his graduate students) as a subject in crash tests on campus. Yes, this was before the days of crash test dummies, and no, there will be no sarcastic statement here as to the relative IQs of the human subjects. (It should also be noted that Ryan did not put his graduate students at undue risk; he subjected himself to the trials ahead of his volunteers.)

Ryan's efforts on the retractable seat belt were just one component of his automobile safety pursuits. He was also responsible for improvements in shock-absorbing hydraulic bumpers, recessed dashboards, and collapsible steering columns.

"I don't think we can say enough about his contributions to the safety of the vehicles we drive every day," Donath said after his presentation. "He's a lasting legacy of what University of Minnesota research has contributed nationally."

And the retractable seat belt is far from being Ryan's only notable invention. In 1960, he received a patent for a "black box" flight recorder for airplanes, a mechanical unit that recorded flight data from several sensors as impressions on metal film. Descendents of his invention are required equipment on all commercial and military aircraft.

Donath said that the seat belt is estimated to have saved more than 195,000 lives from 1975-2004, according to statistics from Traffic Safety Facts, a publication of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And some issues that Ryan had been studying in the 1950s--such as car rollover accidents--are still relevant today. Donath noted that in 2003 there were 4,248 fatalities from rollover accidents--11.1 percent of all road fatalities.

The University of Minnesota continues to be a leader in research related to transportation and automobiles. The U's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute, which Donath directs, was recently awarded a five-year, $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to conduct a wide array of transportation research. ITS's research includes efforts to reduce crashes at rural intersections, the use of GPS (Global Positioning System) devices to prevent run-off-the-road crashes, and measures to prevent rear-end crashes.