Whiplash research taking a front seat

Tests: A Johns Hopkins researcher and his team are working to prevent injuries during car crashes.

July 30, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Michael Kleinberger doesn't completely understand whiplash, an injury that affects 800,000 Americans every year, but he thinks he can help stop it.

Kleinberger and several other scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in North Laurel have spent the past several months putting a family of dummies into specially modified car seats, then crashing them backward into a brick wall to see the effects.

The data Kleinberger collects will be used by the federal government to adjust standards for seat backs and head restraints.

Kleinberger's work is a source of debate. Other researchers and car manufacturers believe the best way to stop whiplash is to spend more time studying its causes, not by making potentially expensive changes to car design.

But the Hopkins researcher disagrees.

"You could wait for someone to come up with the perfect solution or you could try to do something about it," Kleinberger said. "I'd rather do something about it."

Whiplash affects the head and neck when they move suddenly and unexpectedly, such as when a passenger is in a car accident.

There are a myriad of opinions as to what whiplash is. Some say it is a muscular problem; others say the abrupt motion affects ligaments or joints.

But Kleinberger does not spend too much time thinking about the cause of whiplash.

Instead, he conducts experiments in a long, plain building that houses computers, a family of dummies and a long track and a specially modified sled with an old Toyota Camry seat that has springs attached to the back so scientists can move it forward and back, depending on the test.

Each dummy has up to 43 sensors, which Kleinberger and his team monitor throughout each crash, using a high-speed camera.

The less the dummy moves during a crash, which generally occurs at 11 mph, the better.

The data Kleinberger and his team collect will be forwarded to the National Transportation Biomechanics Research Center, which is updating standards for automobile head restraints.

Federal officials are anxious to update the standards because they have not been significantly modernized since 1968.

"The standards are ancient," said Shashi Kuppa, a researcher at the National Transportation Biomechanics Research Center.

One reason head restraint standards have remained unchanged is that they have taken a back seat to other research, Kuppa and others said.

Whiplash is responsible for about $5.2 billion annually in lost wages and damages, according to a National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration study, but ways to prevent it are often overlooked in favor of airbags or other death-prevention research because "we don't see a lot of death because of seat back or head restraint failure," Kuppa said.

Albert King, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, has been investigating the cause of whiplash by studying cadavers and animals. Scientists should spend more time on the medical reasons behind whiplash, King said.

"Studying [design] is putting the cart before the horse," argued King. "You cannot cure what you don't know."

Car manufacturers are also wary of head-restraint tests. While many car makers say they support new standards, they also do not want the federal government to move too quickly.

Head-restraint research "may be effective, but it may preclude other solutions that might be more effective," said Michael Cammisa, director of safety for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.

While Kleinberger says that research into the medical causes of whiplash is the best way to solve whiplash in the long term, "this is the best way of solving things in the short term," he said.

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