A Kansas City, Mo., TV station uncovered a little-discussed component of impact tests funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA): sometimes, the test dummies aren’t dummies at all, but cadavers donated for medical research.
The report by KSHB-TV Channel 41 raised concerns that those who donate their bodies to research may not realize they’ll be used in violent impact testing. The NHSTA emphasized that like other medical research involving cadavers, these crash tests benefit the living.
“Our tests involving cadavers are strictly controlled, laboratory-run sled tests that are designed to [assess] the tolerance of various regions of the human body to forces that may be encountered in a vehicle crash,” NHTSA associate chief counsel Stanley Feldman wrote in response to the station’s request for impact test records. “This allows us to estimate the degree and type of injuries vehicle occupants may experience in a crash so that we can improve vehicle safety.”
However, one woman whose parents donated their bodies for medical research said she never thought her mother and father would be used in an impact test.
“It’s kind of scary,” Jenny Gray told Channel 41. “I can’t picture my folks behind that kind of testing.”
For the tests, cadavers are dressed in absorbent long underwear covered by leotards and marked with the same black and yellow circles seen on dummies. Hoods are placed over cadavers’ heads, and hands are covered with mittens.
David Porta, Ph.D., a researcher who has helped conduct impact tests using cadavers, said donating one’s body for medical research is “giving the ultimate gift,” but conceded that release forms used when bodies are donated are “very generic” and often don’t indicate what type of research a body will be used for. The NHTSA doesn’t require schools to get special consent from donors or their families for impact tests.
Since 1980, NHTSA has used cadavers in more than 4,000 crash tests, Channel 41 reported. This year, NHTSA funded testing using whole-corpse or individual body parts cut from cadavers at Duke, Medical College of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of Washington and University of Virginia.
The cadavers not only demonstrate what happens to the human body in a crash, but also help researchers calibrate dummies to be more realistic, Porta noted.
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