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UMTRI's Manary researches and educates community about automobile safety

Ever wonder who gets to work with crash test dummies and simulate automobile collisions? That would be staff members at the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), including Miriam Manary, a senior research associate engineer.
Kathleen Klinich (left), a research engineer and Ph.D. candidate in the UMTRI Biosciences division, and Manary pose with the crash test dummies.(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

As a member of the biosciences division of UMTRI, Manary uses dummies in all shapes in sizes, tests new child seats on the market and experiments with crash physics. It is work that carries enormous policy implications for interior vehicle design, accessibility for the handicapped, and most of all, child safety.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, has used the bioscience division's work in formulating child passenger safety curriculum. Manary also took part in a committee that developed the ISOFixLATCH system, which is now featured on many child safety seats and vehicles.

One of the driving statistics behind Manary's research is the more than 80 percent misuse of child safety seats nationwide. Perhaps even more startling is that 80—90 percent of parents believe they are using these seats correctly. This discrepancy has led Manary to participate in educational programs, such as the Safe Kids coalition, which distributes pamphlets and teaches parents how to properly use child restraints. Car seat check-up events, such as those held in Washtenaw County, allow Manary and other UMTRI staff to apply issues explored in the lab to real-life situations.

Despite the high misuse rate, Manary believes that most parents are well intentioned and need simply to be better educated on the subject.

"At check-up events you get really motivated parents who have waited in lines, looked in the paper, filled out forms and brought in their kids, and still we see well over 90 percent misuse," Manary says. "I think it's really an engineering problem. Car seats need to be easier to use and more intuitiveyou can't depend on parents reading all the instructions."

A larger concern, Manary says, is that nearly half of parents do not use restraints at all. Even an incorrectly used seat offers some protection, she says, whereas no seat increases the likelihood of injury from a crash exponentially. As of late, this concern has generated Anton's Law, a new federal mandate that calls for increased safety in the 4—8 age group. In turn, Manary believes that this law will lead to greater booster seat use.

"Now that there's a federal initiative to increase kids' safety, you'll see a lot more of them in booster seats," Manary says. "I sort of think of it like bicycle safety. When I was little, we didn't wear bicycle helmets. Now, they're widely acceptedand you see most kids wearing helmets."

Another concern Manary encounters is helping parents decide which child seat is best for their vehicle. She describes the optimal product as one that can be "installed tightly"and this could carry different implications for different cars. For instance, Manary says it is difficult to find a good fit for vehicles that have highly contoured, firm seats. Other vehicles may have a variety of compatible seats available.

"What might work well in your car, might not work well in someone else's car," she says.

Spending time researching and educating, Manary finds her job to be immensely rewarding. Her drive to continue her work is only strengthened by the prospect of new state legislation regarding child safety in vehicles, among other issues.

"It's very satisfying to make a difference and recommend change in product design," Manary says. "Even on an individual levelto take the research and in turn make kids saferit's gratifying."

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