National Museum of American History Collects 75 Years of Auto Safety

July 13, 2010
In a special ceremony, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History accepted a donation of objects related to 75 years of auto-safety innovation and initiatives from 10 individuals, companies and organizations, including General Motors, the American Automobile Association, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Volvo. The objects will become part of the museum’s permanent research collection that illustrates the evolution of automobile safety. The objects represent technological achievements such as seat belts, crash-test dummies, energy absorbing features, ignition interlock and alcohol detection devices, as well as driver education and public-awareness campaigns.

Among the objects accepted into the collection are the original “Vince and Larry” crash-test dummy costumes that appeared in public-safety campaigns nationwide from 1985 through 1998. To mark the 25th anniversary of these award-winning public service announcements, Vince and Larry, played by the original actors Tony Reitano and Whitney Rydbeck, “crashed” into the ceremony. Video of the surprise visit is available at http://americanhistory.si.edu/VinceandLarry.

“Millions of lives have been saved on America’s roadways thanks to the combined efforts of lawmakers, automakers, engineers and safety advocates,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “This research collection offers a tangible record of these efforts, as well as inspiration to future generations of American innovators, historians and all automobile lovers.”

Along with the Vince and Larry costumes, the museum has received the body parts and props used during the campaign’s filming. At the event, Reitano and Rydbeck were joined by Jim Ferguson and Joel Machak, formerly of the Leo Burnett agency, who co-created the campaign. Ferguson wrote its famous tagline, “You Could Learn a Lot From a Dummy.”

Other objects include a General Motors Hybrid III crash-test dummy, a seat with a three-point seat belt from a 1961 Volvo, 1930s driver education safety literature from the American Automobile Association, ignition-interlock breath analyzers from Guardian Interlock, a Hybrid II crash-test dummy from Denton ATD, a 1967 Chevrolet energy-absorbing steering column from Keith Adelsberg and a padded dashboard invented by reconstructive plastic surgeon Dr. Claire L. Straith.

“This is about America’s relationship with its cars; we all know it’s a love affair,” said Roger White, associate curator at the museum. “But automobiles had to change to make them truly useful and acceptable.”

When U.S. automobiles rolled off the assembly line in the early 20th century, they emerged into a horse-and-buggy society that knew nothing about steering columns, windshields and the dangers of combining speed, fuel, steel, glass and inexperienced drivers. Road fatality rates soared, and early efforts to address public safety largely focused on driver behavior. It was not until the 1950s that regulators and manufacturers turned their attention to the vehicles themselves.

The objects join nearly a dozen previously acquired artifacts, including a 1948 Tucker sedan with advanced safety features; an after-market seat belt manufactured by the Selfgard company in the 1960s; and Burma Shave road signs that addressed the hazards of drunk driving.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).