National Engineers Week

Photo by Chris.

Wednesday morning, just in time for the morning rush-hour a freezing rain hit Saint Louis. My first indication of trouble was the morning traffic reports. I had a 7:30 meeting, so I was up and moving earlier than usual. There were accidents reported, but none along my commuting route, so I didn’t give it too much thought. Later another traffic report spoke of many more accidents, including a 30+ car pileup downtown. Responding emergency vehicles only contributed to the crash totals. Stepping gingerly out of the door, I found only wet pavement. The only ice that I found was scraped off of my car windows.

In between the time that I left the house, stopped at Starbucks and headed towards the highway, I heard more accident reports. The first one reported two blocked lanes at Olive. I decided to head north on Hanley to get around the backup, but by the time I was far enough north to get back onto the highway a second accident at the Rock Road had the highway completely blocked.

So, I stuck with Hanley Road all the way to work. The only overpass that I had to cross and it was only on the overpasses that the ice had formed was where Hanley crossed I-70. There I found two cop cars, cherry lights flashing, sitting out in the middle of the overpass. They just sat there to ensure no one tried to do anything stupid and I didn’t. I made it to work safely as did Anne. I never even felt any ice while driving.

This is National Engineers Week. I started working as an engineer over thirty years ago at Chrysler’s proving grounds in Chelsea, MI. I didn’t like that job much and my work performance soon showed that, but one task that I did enjoy was helping to set up an automated test stand to calibrate the accelerometers inside of crash test dummies. Accelerometers are the instruments that measure the impacts that crash test dummies endure during simulated car crashes.

The test stand was pretty simple, drop a disembodied dummy’s head 10” onto a steel plate and measure the accelerometer’s response. You could try this at home by hanging upside-down and then releasing yourself onto a hard surface, but I would not recommend it. It would really hurt a lot.

Later in the day, I came upon two other engineers and in a riff off of the morning’s commute they were watching the following video. Produced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, it commemorates the advancements in car safety in the last fifty years. This YouTube video shows two cars, a 2009 Chevy Malibu and a beautiful mint condition 1959 Chevy Bel Air colliding in a near head on collision. The results are dramatic and also surprising. One might think that the bigger, heavier and Steel Bel Air would fare better than its smaller, lighter and Plastic opponent. You would be wrong.

You would be just as wrong as my back-ass former Chrysler managers were. These very same managers bellyached about needless government regulation and complained that it was ruining the auto industry. I knew that they were wrong then and I did not want to work for them. This video shows that they were wrong and that government requirements can effect a positive change. Any Insurance Institute is unlikely to back needless government regulation. I just mention this, because sometimes positive change is hard to recognize.

Thirty years of engineering has taught me two things: 1) anything is correct if it is argued well; 2) in the end the truth do tell. Engineering is a collaborative endeavor. When engineers work together technical disputes are mostly settled with logic and data, but not always. Engineers are people too and sometimes emotions carry the day in an argument. Over time facts will eventually dictate who is right, but that may not matter much to who is left.

I don’t mean to sound so negative about work and engineering. Things are actually going pretty well these days. Today, I got to attend a 30-year anniversary luncheon for my walking buddy, Barbara. We went to Hendel’s Market in Florissant. Barb’s and my old boss, Denny, appeared there too.

9 thoughts on “National Engineers Week

  1. That is a fabulous – and fabulously-produced – video of the crash! What better way to compare the two vehicles than to crash them together, really? Personally, I would have said the Malibu would have come out better (as would its driver) than either the ’59 or the ’59’s driver, but only because I’d followed the changes in auto crash requirements over the past 30-odd years. From the 5MPH bumpers thru the headrest requirements, thru the “roll-cage” and “people-safety cage” and airbags and safety glass and… and… and…, well you get the picture; a lot of crash dummy models have been designed and destroyed for our safety!

    It comes down to: it is the folks who do not believe in the Laws of Physics who would continue to argue that the ’59 would have come out the winner in that crash (and drive their SUVs at 80+ on icy highways, while everyone else is crawling along – I’ve observed that on many a winter commute!).

  2. Today, let’s not be too negative about the American auto industry, because GM just announced its first full-year profit since 2004. We can thank the government for that too. 😉

  3. “One might think that the bigger, heavier and Steel Bel Air would fare better than its smaller, lighter and Plastic opponent. ”
    Really? The Bel air is only 179 pounds heavier, and is made of 35,000 psi tensile strength mild steel. The new cars are made of up to 5 kinds of steel, including 110,000 psi Ultra High Strength steel around the passenger compartment. Three times stronger. The only “plastic” on the new car is the decorative trim in front and back covering the strong steel structure underneath. Today’s cars are as heavy, and often much heavier than most of the 1950s and 1960s cars.

  4. @carscarseverywhere, I do not question your argument, but mine was not so much about the facts as it was about people’s perception of the facts. I still contend that most people think that the older cars were stronger. Being wrong frequently doesn’t phase most people. After all why let the facts get in the way of a good argument?

  5. You are right – perception becomes reality in far too many people’s minds. When that crash test was done in Sept 2009, all these idiots all over the internet kept claiming the test was rigged, the old chevy had no engine, the car was rusty, the frame just had to be strategically cut in places for it to fold like that – every possible conspiracy theory you could imagine, and many you could not. Except for the simplest explanation – that the old car is not as strong as you thought when compared to the new one.

  6. @carscarseverywhere, thank you for both of your lucid, informative and helpful comments. I look forward to hearing from you again.

    Jay, civil engineers are expected to politely accept their lot.

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