Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Acquires “Jaws of Life”

Additional Objects Related to Auto Safety Join Its Collections
February 26, 2013

Auto-safety innovations and initiatives, including the “Jaws of Life,” will join the National Museum of American History’s permanent research collections. They illustrate the evolution of automobile safety and represent technological achievements such as portable rescue devices and repositioned fuel tanks, as well as public-awareness and driver-safety campaigns.

“Thanks to the numerous automobile innovations throughout history, in addition to Americans becoming public advocates for auto safety, countless lives have been saved,” said Roger White, associate curator at the museum. “We are proud to develop a broad collection that documents these achievements for future generations of Americans.”

The recent acquisitions include a 1977 Hurst Power Rescue Tool, developed by Mike Brick and popularly nicknamed “The Jaws of Life,” from the Carlsbad Fire Department in New Mexico; a 1983 license plate reading, “I AM MADD,” originally belonging to Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving; personal effects of her daughter Cari, whose death in a drunk-driving tragedy led to the founding of MADD; an original highway memorial sign donated by the Eddy County DWI Program in New Mexico; and a model of a 1971-1973 Ford Pinto, which was color-coded by auto-safety expert Byron Bloch to show prosecutors the unsafe location of fuel tanks near the rear bumper during the historic “reckless homicide” trial in Winamac, Ind., held in 1980.

“This is about America’s relationship with its cars; we all know it’s a love affair,” said White, “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, 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 regulations and manufacturers turned their attention to the vehicles themselves.

The objects join a collection of previously acquired artifacts, including the “Vince and Larry” crash-test dummy costumes that appeared in public-safety campaigns nationwide from 1985 through 1998, a seat with a three-point seat belt from a 1961 Volvo, a 1967 Chevrolet energy-absorbing steering column, a 1948 Tucker sedan with advanced safety features, ignition-interlock breath analyzers and 1930s driver-education safety literature.

The museum invited auto-safety pioneers to tell their stories in their own words and reflect on the meaning of the objects on the museum’s “America on the Move” exhibition website.   

The museum is currently renovating its west exhibition wing with new galleries on American business, democracy and culture; an education center; new spaces for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation; public plazas; a Hall of Music for live performances; and the addition of a first-floor window wall with views to the Washington Monument. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free.