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Subject: Dressing A Crash Test Dummy

Fashion for Dummies: Auto Makers Follow Dress Code for Crash Tests

[Note: We couldn't find the original article in the WSJ for correct attribution but hope the author's name is sufficient if you wish to follow up.]

Occasional parts shortages are nothing new in the auto industry. But nobody was quite prepared for the Pink Underwear Crisis of the 1990s.

Treman Medina sure wasn't. The engineer had to leave work one afternoon to hunt down pink undies in the lingerie section of a department store. Salespeople gave him odd looks as he rummaged in vain through the slips and panties in search of something that would fit a 170-pound male, 5 feet 8 inches tall.

Male crash-test dummy, that is.

Federal regulations required that automotive crash dummies be dressed in undergarments the color of "tea rose" when they are slammed into concrete walls. But the supply had dried up unexpectedly, leaving much of the automotive world -- including Mr. Medina, who works for a crash-dummy manufacturer -- short of long underwear.

He explained his problem to a saleswoman, and after she stopped laughing, she helped him check the stock. Finally, Mr. Medina had to special-order from the store catalog. "I just wanted to get out of there," he says.

Then there was the time he visited a shopping mall toting two detached crash-dummy feet in a brown paper bag. His mission: find sneakers for a Japanese auto maker. Not easy, because dummy feet aren't quite like human feet; for one thing, they don't have toes. Mr. Medina approached an athletic-shoe salesman, who didn't believe him at first. "Then I pulled the feet out of the bag," he says. With the help of a shoehorn, he found a few pairs of shoes that fit.

People don't ride around naked in their cars. So neither should crash dummies, according to rules written by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For the sake of verisimilitude, dummies must be clothed during crash tests, the NHTSA says. An unclothed dummy's vinyl skin could stick to a car seat or perhaps even make the dummy slide more than a human would, thus distorting test results that ultimately might affect vehicle design.

Dummies are stuffed with expensive high-tech devices that measure the impact of crashes on the head, chest and other body parts. To ensure reliable measurements, the conditions of each crash test must be identical, regulators say. The tiniest detail -- down to shoes that aren't the right weight -- can ruin a test.

"It may superficially seem silly," says Robert Shelton, associate NHTSA administrator for safety performance standards. "But the more you can do to chase down and eliminate sources of variation, the more consistent the test results are."

So NHTSA has a dress code for dummies. They're supposed to wear matched sets of cotton shirts and form-fitting shorts that cover the thighs, along with clunky, black-leather oxford shoes. The tight-fitting skivvies don't catch on seats, so engineers can see clearly how limbs flail in a crash. Dummies have to wear shoes because people generally do. (Socks aren't required, though, because they wouldn't affect tests one way or another.)

Some rules are elaborate. For example, a dummy representing a three-year-old child must wear "thermal knit, waffle-weave polyester and cotton underwear or equivalent," the rules say. The shoes must be "size 7M sneakers ... with rubber toe caps, uppers of Dacron and cotton or nylon and a total mass of .453 kg."

For years, the government required adult dummies' clothes to be pink -- "tea rose," as the rules read -- because that hue showed up nicely on films of crash tests, without the glare caused by white garb. But NHTSA recently eased the rule to let auto makers use whatever color they want. The rules also used to require that dummies wear a gray suede shoe, because that's what engineers at General Motors Corp. used when they developed the current generation of dummies in the 1970s. Then the supplier changed the style, and the government opted for the military-type oxfords.

Regulators also provide laundering instructions. The child dummies' clothes must be washed at a temperature of 71 to 82 degrees Celsius, and dried for precisely 30 minutes at 49 to 60 degrees Celsius.

"They don't tell you to use a fabric softener," says Risa Scherer, a Ford Motor Co. engineer. "I guess we should be thankful."

All these regulations have turned people like Ms. Scherer and Mr. Medina into reluctant shoppers for dummy clothing. "It's part of the job," says Mr. Medina, who works for Applied Safety Technologies Corp. in Milan, Ohio.

It isn't an easy part. Retailers don't cater to crash dummies, though the market may be growing, thanks to proposed new federal rules requiring auto makers to conduct crash tests with a whole family of dummies in addition to the standard male mannequin.

Today, most auto companies keep dozens of dummies around, and use different methods to stock up on dummy duds. Chrysler, now the U.S. arm of DaimlerChrysler AG, orders from a dummy manufacturer, despite a typically stiff markup. Chrysler engineer Jeff Berliner says he just grew tired of shopping for 100 dummies. Store salespeople, he says, rarely could tell him such things as whether their underwear meets NHTSA's weight specifications.

GM orders direct from apparel companies, laying in massive supplies every few years. The company currently is in the market for about 2,400 sets of long underwear. Underwear salesman Mike Munch, of J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills Inc. in Allentown, Pa., has sent GM some samples, but the male sizes are gray instead of the preferred pink. "You couldn't get a retailer in this country to buy pink men's underwear," Mr. Munch says.

Ford's Ms. Scherer has been relying lately on the J.C. Penney catalog, which helpfully lists the weights and fabric makeup of its underwear. Ford, for its own purposes, uses its own dyes to add color to white clothing-pink for the driver-side dummy, blue for the one on the passenger side.

Ms. Scherer used to go from store to store in search of dummy attire. One day she started at a Target store, where she bought four identical pairs of size 12.5M sneakers for dummies representing six-year-old children. Then she went to J.C. Penney, where she found two more pairs of the same type, as well as two pairs in size 7M for three-year-old-child dummies. Later came stops at a Mervyn's and yet another Target, where she found four more pairs she needed. A clerk at one store remarked, "You've got a lot of kids."

Actually she has none, unless you count the dummies lolling around Ford's lab one recent day, dressed in various vintages of long underwear. One sits there with its head staring up from its lap. Others have returned from crash tests splashed with paint, or with holes worn through their outfits by seat belts or air bags. Some of their shoes carry warning labels saying they can't be used for official tests. They're from a recent batch that weighed more than allowed by NHTSA.

Bigger problems may await. U.S. military services are moving to dump their current oxford shoes, and Wolverine World Wide Inc., which supplies the shoes to some dummy makers, plans to stop making them in the next few years. Glen Becker, a Wolverine vice president, says he expects rival shoemakers to follow suit.

So Auto companies and dummy makers now are bracing for the Shoe Crisis of 2000.

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