How Crash Dummies Made Us All Smarter

Museum Exhibit Recalls Impact of Seat Belt Ads

Posted July 16, 2010 at 2:51pm

Back in the 1940s, American automakers thought their cars would appear safer if they came without seat belts. In the 1950s and ’60s, people thought of safety belts as unsafe, imagining they would become deadly traps in the event of an emergency.

Those flawed beliefs led the Department of Transportation to create a campaign with the aim of increasing seat belt safety awareness: talking crash-test dummies.

The National Museum of American History celebrated those dummies Wednesday when it accepted the donations of auto safety artifacts from the past 75 years in a ceremony attended by former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, as well as other transportation officials and auto executives. The new additions include the original costumes of Vince and Larry — of whom National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator David Strickland said, “There are no two dummies that have done more for traffic safety.”

“We saved a lot of lives,” said Tony Reitano, who played Vince. “We used to look at the numbers, and we’d see that the [number of] deaths from people not wearing seat belts was going down. Everybody knew the campaign.”

Reitano wasn’t just blowing smoke. Over the campaign’s run, from 1985 to 1998, seat belt use skyrocketed from 14 percent to 79 percent of motorists, saving an estimated 85,000 lives, according to the NHTSA and the Ad Council.

The campaign’s creators learned from their work, too. Co-creator Joel Machak, as well as Reitano and Whitney Rydbeck, who played Larry, said the campaign brought them from inconsistent to habitual seat belt buckling.

“We’ve been educated,” Reitano said. “We had to watch films before we did [the shoots] to see how the dummies reacted. And when we saw what happened to them, we were like, ‘I think I’m going to put my seat belt on forever.'”

Although — or perhaps because — their ads no longer play on TV, the people behind the campaign make sure to continue educating those around them.

“I have a really rude way of doing it,” said Bill Dear, the director of the commercials. “One time there was a little kid standing by a dashboard. The mom was driving; the window was down. I pull up and I say, ‘Hey you, kid!’ The mom looks at me and I say, ‘Ask your mom why she’s tryin’ to kill ya!’ You should have seen the look on the mom’s face. She didn’t get it. ‘Put a seat belt on that kid!'”

Dear’s advertisements reflected that same blend of visceral urgency and undeniable humor, with slogans such as “You could learn a lot from a dummy” and “Breaking up isn’t hard to do. Buckle your safety belt.” Machak said the creative team studied traffic safety campaigns in Europe, many of which were “very, very dramatic, and they all had one thing in common: They were universally ineffective.”

“What we wanted to do was show a car accident in a way that you could look at it. So the idea of crash dummies was born,” he said. “We could show accidents. We could show the kind of damage and injury that can occur by you not wearing your safety belts. But as you watch the commercials, you don’t even realize that that’s what you’re being served because it’s covered with a wonderful glaze of humor.”

Other new donations to the exhibition include an early three-point seat belt from 1959 and a padded, crash-friendly dashboard developed in the 1930s to replace earlier versions made of steel — showing just how far traffic safety has come.

Considering the fact that traffic fatalities still happen — about 34,000 last year — where does the campaign team go from here?

“Maybe we should have a whole new dummy campaign against cell phones and texting [while driving],” Rydbeck said. “We could do a whole new bit!”