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Auto-safety history gets its place in the Smithsonian

Thu, 15 Jul 2010 00:00:00 -0700

Smithsonian museum officials say their new collection of auto-safety objects dating to the 1930s is about America's love affair with its cars. But really it's about our passion for, well, staying alive.

While some enthusiasts might question whether their cars should be braking for them, it's hard to quarrel with most of this technology.

There's the first energy-absorbing steering column from a 1967 Chevrolet, a padded dashboard, a three-point seat belt attached to a 1961 Volvo seat and a collection of crash-test dummies and dummy limbs that took a beating for the rest of us.

But the hottest attractions are the costumes once worn by Vince and Larry, the world's most famous crash-test dummies. Those and the "dummies" themselves. Tony Reitano and Whitney Rydbeck, the original Vince and Larry actors, even showed up for the event, barreling in on an out-of-control golf cart and posing for countless pictures. Though they seemed like slightly built mimes (there were voice and body actors and these guys were the bodies), they did share a few memories, recalling when "we went through a windshield together."

While Reitano and Rydbeck were buoyant at the Smithsonian ceremony, Jim Ferguson, cocreator of the ad campaign, said they had grueling jobs during the 13 years through 1998 that the commercials ran. The hard headpieces had to be screwed onto the actors' heads and the marble eyes almost immediately would fog up.

Bill Dear, who directed the commercials, had a much easier time. The director of movies Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield and countless commercials said he always looked forward to doing the seatbelt ads.

"Most of the time I was selling soap or sugar to kids," says Dear. "With this, it made me feel like I might save a life."

He did. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the national seatbelt-usage rate rose 14 percentage points to 79 percent during the campaign, saving an estimated 85,000 lives.

As NHTSA chief David Strickland noted, other dummies may be more "biofidelic," but "no two dummies have done more for traffic safety than Vince and Larry."

Other donations, which will be featured on a new Web site soon by the National Museum of American History and possibly an exhibit down the road, include:

-- General Motors' Hybrid III crash-test dummy.

-- 1930s driver-training manuals on "wartime" and "sportsmanlike" driving from the American Automobile Association.

-- Ignition interlock breath analyzers from Guardian Interlock.

By Jayne O