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Researcher: Vehicles can prevent crashes

Automotive News reports on past research into safety systems for cars.

Automotive News

WASHINGTON -- Safety advocates railed when the federal government scrapped research vehicles it developed in the 1970s and 1980s to show how to protect occupants from injuries in crashes.

But Joseph Kanianthra, who helped develop the cars, says they live on. Almost all of the occupant protection features of the experimental vehicles are now part of the cars and trucks automakers build for consumers, he notes.

Kanianthra told Automotive News he takes special pride in that knowledge. On Friday, Aug. 1, he retired from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after a 32-year career.

Kanianthra, 74, was one of the most senior officials at the agency, which is responsible for regulating motor vehicles and reducing deaths and injuries on highways. He held a variety of positions, ending as associate administrator for vehicle safety research. NHTSA is seeking a successor.

Kanianthra's departure "is a loss to the agency and the public," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety and a Washington safety advocate since the early 1970s.

He came, he stayed

Kanianthra did not plan a government career. In 1976, the mechanical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee came to NHTSA, intending to stay a year or two and learn about the availability of research funding.

"Teaching was my passion," he said. But "I was enamored with the things that came my way. I totally was floored with all the things we could do. I just decided to stay."

His specialties included frontal and side-impact protection, roof crush injury prevention, ejection mitigation, head injury prevention and vehicle compatibility, according to an agency statement.

Considerable progress has been made in developing systems to protect people in crashes, Kanianthra said. But much work remains to be done to prevent crashes, he added.

"All of it takes research," he said. "That is where I think the next frontier for safety is going to be."

Government won't conduct much of that research because it lacks money, Kanianthra said. Instead, government can encourage outsiders--including suppliers and automakers--to find solutions, he said.

Vehicle intervention

Driver error or impairment causes about 90 percent of crashes. Vehicle technologies that help drivers stay out of crashes would make tremendous safety strides, Kanianthra said. Such technologies could take the form of additional warning systems or even limited vehicle intervention, such as automatic braking, he said.

But a vehicle can't take full control, Kanianthra added, because "I don't think people will accept that." At the same time, he said, efforts must continue to improve occupant protection in crashes.

Kanianthra emigrated from his native India 46 years ago and lives in suburban Washington. In his retirement, he said, he may continue to play a role in vehicle safety. He said he also is interested in teaching, writing and consulting, but not lobbying.

"I'm certainly not going to sit idle," he said. "I want to do something."

(Source: Automotive News)