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How “Murphy’s Law” Helped Make Our Roads Safer: Seat Belt History

 In Vehicle Safety

Murphy’s Law is a widely used phrase that means, “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” This idea has been around a long time, but where did it originate? There are a few different versions, but one links it to seat belt history.

In 1949, Dr. John Paul Stapp, a medical officer at Edwards Air Force Base wanted to know if pilots could withstand the forces of acceleration and deceleration in an airplane crash. With all of the flight advances after World War II, this was an important question and one that would ultimately save lives.

To get his answer, Dr. Stapp and the Air Force built an experimental test track where they would strap a person inside a sled. The sled would then speed down the track very fast, up to 200 mph, then stop suddenly, mimicking a plane crash. Researchers would then measure the forces on the person inside the sled to better understand how much the human body could tolerate. Knowing that he was putting the test pilots at risk, Dr. Stapp volunteered himself. But before he could take that risky ride, he and his team needed to figure out how they would they measure the forces and collect the data. That’s where Air Force Captain Edward A. Murphy comes in.

Captain Murphy, known as a whiz kid, was called on to develop a device to measure the acceleration and deceleration of forces on the human body during these high-speed sled tests. After developing the devices at his lab at Muroc Air Force Base in Ohio, he hand-delivered them to the test site in California. The devices were installed in the sled with a dummy and the first test-runs began. Once they were completed though, the gauges on the devices read zero. There was no data. What happened? Turns out, a technician installed the devices upside down and backwards. Irritated, Captain Murphy personally installed the devices himself and the test-runs continued with Dr. Stapp in the sled. According to data collected from Captain Murphy’s gauges, Dr. Stapp subjected himself to forces greater than 36 G’s – that’s 36 times the force of gravity. You can watch these record-breaking speed tests for yourself here.

During media interviews after the tests, Dr. Stapp was asked how he didn’t get hurt. He said, “We do all our work in consideration of Murphy’s Law.” In other words, they considered all of the possibilities before conducting the tests. It’s not clear if Dr. Stapp was the first to coin the phrase or if it was someone on his testing team, but the phrase caught on after the media ran with it and aerospace companies used it for ads.

After noticing that car crashes took the lives of nearly as many men as plane crashes, Dr. Stapp lobbied for installing seat belts in cars.

Dr. Stapp’s notoriety gave him a public platform to push for safer conditions not only for Air Force members, but also the driving public, creating seat belt history. After noticing that car crashes took the lives of nearly as many men as plane crashes, Dr. Stapp lobbied for installing seat belts in cars. His efforts contributed to the passing of the 1966 law requiring auto manufacturers to install seat belts in vehicles.

Dr. Stapp’s life-saving advocacy continues to this day in the form of the annual Stapp Car Crash Conference®, “the premier forum for presentation of research in impact biomechanics, human injury tolerance, and related fields that advance the knowledge of land-vehicle crash injury protection.”

(Disclaimer: Admittedly, there are various versions of this seat belt history story and the details of the relationship between Captain Murphy and Dr. Stapp’s team. We found the essentials of this story in a little known book The Ig Nobel Prizes 2, An All-New Collection of the World’s Unlikeliest Research, by Marc Abrahams, 2004. Dr. Stapp, Captain Murphy and another team member George Nichols were awarded the 2004 IG Nobel Engineering Prize for coining the phrase.)

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