Seat belt billboard in Minneapolis
MINNEAPOLIS -- The latest seat belt safety campaign in Minnesota delves into the unbreakable laws of physics, comparing the impact of an unbelted crash to a fall from a tall building.
The use of gravity also harkens back to the groundbreaking research of University of Minnesota engineering professor James "Crash" Ryan, who dedicated much of his storied career to auto safety.
In July of 1957 Ryan shared many of his ideas and innovations with Dave Garroway in a Today Show segment broadcast from the U of M campus. That show-and-tell featured retractable hydraulic bumpers, collapsible steer wheels and seat belts.
But what kept people tuned in was the sight of a sedan suspended 80 feet in the air from a construction crane.
"Doctor, let's get on with our car dropping bit, shall we?" Garroway said, glancing at his watch.
Ryan let Garroway do the honors of pushing the button that set off a charge that cut the cable and allowed the car to plummet to the earth.
"Ooh! Wow!," Garroway exclaimed. "You could see what would happen with somebody in that car. They wouldn't be with us now!"
"That's true. The people in the car would be completely crushed," he said, in a matter of fact tone.
Fast forward 55 years to Monday, and you could find another U of M professor on a Minneapolis rooftop making another point about seat belt safety and the law of gravity.
"If you were to fall off this building, it would take you about two seconds to hit the ground," Dave Dahlberg, a U of M physics professor, told reporters who gathered on the roof of the five-story City Center parking ramp.
"In the time your reach the pavement going 40 miles an hour until you speed was zero, you'd endure an acceleration of at least 200 G's," he said, adding that 10 G's is the maximum gravitational force fighter pilots can survive.
Dahlberg helped the Department of Public Safety and the Minnesota State Patrol roll out a new seat belt enforcement effort.
That campaign features a vertical electronic billboard showing a stick figure falling from buildings of varying heights.
"We thought this would be a good way to put it in perspective, of how violent a car crash actually is and what can occur when you're ejected," Donna Berger, who heads the DPS Office of Traffic Safety, explained.
"A total of 377 unbelted motorists lost their life the last three years in Minnesota, and over half of those were age 30 and under," Berger added.
The free falling billboard theme ties in to a new public service announcement shot from the point of view of the person who would be falling from the building.
"At 60 miles an hour," the narrator can be heard saying in the TV ad, "If you're not wearing your seat belt and you crash, it's like falling from 12 stories high."
Ryan's lasting legacy
Ryan -- who earned his nickname subjecting himself, his students and dummies to numerous crash tests -- secured a patent for retractable seat belts in 1963. And three years later President Johnson signed the federal law mandating seat belts as standard safety equipment in all cars.
In 2006 the Liberty Mutual Insurance company ran a series of ads that duplicated Ryan's car-dropping stunt. In the Liberty Mutual spot the car is dropped at a high school, to make a vivid impression on the teen drivers most in need of the message.
Today, however, Ryan's remembered more for inventing the flight data recorder, otherwise known as the black box. Those boxes are now painted bright orange, to make them easier to spot in plane wreckage.
Ryan's original device, which he worked on at the U of M and at a General Mills aeronautical research, was black. And it looked more like a sphere than a box, according to those who worked with Ryan in the lab.
(Copyright 2012 KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewriten or redistributed.)