A smarter dummy

A smarter dummy

Rowan Engineering research is helping to redesign pediatric crash dummies.

In a car crash, children can be seriously injured, even if strapped into a proper seat, as their heads snap about on developing muscles and bones.

But new research conducted at Rowan's College of Engineering could one day lead to sounder cars, better restraint systems and, ultimately, safer children!

A multi-year study in partnership with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found that the design used by the world's two main manufacturers of pediatric crash dummies was less anatomically correct than it might be and that design, on which cars, car seats, even seat belt systems are based, may be contributing to more serious injuries.

"In crashes, head injuries are the most common injury for children," said Dr. Jennifer Kadlowec, an associate professor within the college's Department of Mechanical Engineering and a lead investigator in the study. "Head injuries are determined by how much the neck moves."

In frontal crashes, Dr. Kadlowec said, a child's head swings forward on the neck like a tennis ball on a spring and slams into the chest, often resulting in neck and head injuries.

She, Assoc. Prof. Eric Constans and about a dozen of their students, both undergraduate and graduate, engaged in three phases of research, much of it focused on how a child's head and neck move in a crash.

The first phase involved an in-depth study of the dummy necks, including the small column of discs that represent a child's cervical spine.

In the second phase, researchers fixed a child-sized dummy head and neck on a swinging inverted pendulum and, when the pendulum hit bottom, measured the force (which represented the force in a frontal crash.)

In the third phase, which researchers termed the "bumper car" phase because it simulated the impact at amusement park bumper cars, children and adults sat in a specially built car on tracks that was struck with a mechanical ram. Impact from the ram strike was intended to represent the force a child might feel in a low-speed car crash.

Dr. Constans, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the team's research confirmed previous research into a deficient dummy design and said it will more than likely lead to a change in the manufacturers' construction.

"Our students are at the age where they want to save the world," Dr. Constans said. "Here was an opportunity to actually try to do that."

The lengthy study, which was featured in a segment on NBC's Today show in November, required the construction of a large swinging pendulum in Engineering's home in Rowan Hall as well as the high-tech cart and track in a lab in Education Hall.

Initial phase findings were published at the 2007 Society of Automotive Engineers Conference and findings from the second research phase are pending publication in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering, a scientific journal. Preliminary findings from the third phase were published at the 2008 Injury Biomechanics Symposium at Ohio State University.

Dr. Constans said follow-up studies could involve work simulating side-impact and rear-end collisions.

"It's really very exciting," Dr. Kadlowec said. "For us, what's most exciting, is the opportunity for research at both the undergraduate and Master's level."

Student researcher Jami Saffioti, who completed her Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering in May and her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in biomedical engineering in 2007, said the study spoke directly to her interests and career goals.

Saffioti, who may pursue a Ph.D. in automotive safety or injury prevention research, described the Rowan findings as "huge."

"Child safety in car crashes is of great concern," said Saffioti, 24, of Lavallette. "The current pediatric crash test dummy doesn't mimic what a real child would do in a frontal car crash. We proved that."