Prescription: safer cars

Surgeon: Shock Trauma's Dr. Andrew Burgess tells carmakers how to lessen crash injuries.

February 16, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

There's a good chance that Dr. Andrew Burgess, chief of orthopedic surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, will have a say in the design of your next new car.

Burgess loves cars. "I'm a car jock," is the way he puts it.

"My first car was a '53 Mercury convertible," Burgess said. "I had a Pontiac GTO, a Chrysler 300 and a '32 Ford pickup hot rod.

"I'm always reading the auto magazines: Road & Track, Car & Driver and Autoweek," the 54-year-old surgeon said as he sat on a sofa in his third-floor office at the hospital, wearing the pink scrubs that identify him with the renowned Shock Trauma Center. It's his way of relaxing after the pressures of the operating room.

Burgess has combined his hobby and his medical experience in a campaign to reduce serious car accident injuries by encouraging auto manufacturers to make safer vehicles.

He heads Shock Trauma's automotive crash injury research program, a team of investigators that examines not only the victims of auto wrecks, but also the twisted vehicles in a collection of data that is having an impact on the way some cars are made.

"We get readings from the car as well as the body," Burgess said. "That's what is unique about the work we are doing here in Maryland."

Drawing on the research of about 400 auto accidents in the state over the past six years, Burgess said auto manufacturers, domestic and foreign, are doing a good job of designing cars to reduce the number of fatal crashes.

"We feel good when we save lives," Burgess said, pounding his chest with a fist. "But we have got to get out of the thinking of just saving lives."

He said many of the survivors of serious wrecks suffer injuries to their legs, ankles and feet that leave them with a life of pain. "They were depressed," he said. "They can never go back to work or even take a walk in the park."

With hopes of drawing more attention to that problem, Burgess and his investigators sometimes show up at the accident scene to examine the damage to a car and its impact on the driver and passengers.

Most of the time, he said, the work is done at a vehicle storage lot.

"It's like detective work," he said. "We take all kind of measurements. We keep looking and keep looking until we find the key" to why a car collapsed the way it did and how it affected the motorist."

Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by more than 300 auto insurers, said the Shock Trauma team's "work is very valuable, particularly in finding out why motorists who are restrained by seat belts and air bags are seriously injured in auto wrecks.

"It's imperative that we not lose sight of what's happening in the real world," he said, comparing the information collected by the Shock Trauma group with the institute's data resulting from the use of auto crash test dummies.

"Basically, they are doing what we do," he said. "They are finding out why serious injuries occur and where the design of cars needs to be improved."

Working with the Insurance Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Burgess said, the intent of the research is to "apply economic, political and regulatory pressure on the auto industry to make cars safer."

There has been progress. Mercedes-Benz has redesigned the floorboards of cars so that much of the force of an impact is absorbed by the transmission housing, the frame under the front doors and the post that runs from the floor of the car up to the windshield.

Some of the data provided by Shock Trauma has been used by the federal Department of Transportation in writing specifications for the construction of the next generation of crash-test dummies.

The new dummies are designed to provide more information on head and neck injuries, damage to internal organs such as the kidneys, and trauma to the legs, ankles and feet.

The center's crash injury research has attracted the attention of Maryland auto retailers.

Last week, the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association held an invitation-only, $100-a-person reception in conjunction with the Auto Show to benefit the Shock Trauma research. Auto dealers will contribute $25,000 to the help finance the program.

"It's research that is going to benefit every new-car buyer in the future," said Richard Kohles, director of the Auto Show.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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