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In essence, Fitch's foremost concern is to spare the motorist that severe and often fatal shock of abrupt deceleration if he plunges off the road—at a deceptive curve, say, or where a dangerous obstacle, like a bridge abutment, is in the way. At his urging, the Vehicle Dynamics Department of the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (developers of the widely publicized safety car) embarked upon—and have since completed—a preliminary study of Lime Rock.
William F. Milliken Jr., director of the department, describes it: "The subject of highway safety has yet to be attacked upon a broad and scientific front utilizing all available experimental methods and analytical techniques. The ultimate engineering objective is the ability to predict, via a mathematical-computer model, the motion behavior of a prescribed traffic configuration. The road-racing circuit offers to the field of highway research a bit of controlled reality. It is to be hoped that its potential as a tool for highway research will be fully exploited."
The Cornell study included considerable measuring and calculating (accurate enough, by the way, to predict correctly the record lap time by a racing car) and a limited amount of barrier testing. This last had mostly to do with the value of the traditional hay bale as a crash barrier. "It was found," says Fitch, "to be practically worthless." But the study also projected further lines of investigation:
"To begin with," Fitch explains, "a few simple experiments should be made to determine the practicality and retarding value of the surface of escape areas. Every road should have an escape area—shoulders, center strips, etc. These surfaces should logically be grass, loose gravel, sand or shallow water. Such information is not available now despite the existence of many safety organizations, some of them in possession of substantial grants.
"From what little we know, shallow pools would seem to be the best solution, but the cost probably would be prohibitive. Sand is the most promising alternative, but we lack the engineering data to tell us just how it should be used for best results.
"The development of crash barriers is an even more difficult matter. There are, however, two general types: the 'deflection barrier,' for example the guard rail; and the 'deceleration barrier,' designed to absorb the full shock of a vehicle hitting it at the perpendicular.
"Consider the arresting gear used on aircraft carriers. The controlled area is small and well defined, the aircraft are specially equipped, they approach from one angle only and, of course, no expense has been spared in the development of suitable arresting systems. We must attempt to accomplish a similar result in a much larger and more difficult area with simple construction and cheap materials.
"Hay bales are woefully inadequate to this purpose. Their density is too great and their center of gravity is too low. They are notorious for 'tripping' and pitching racing cars into vicious gyrations."
A SCIENTIFIC HAY BALE
"It seems reasonable to assume that, for racing purposes at least, a 'scientific hay bale' can be built—a large, low-density penetration barrier which would absorb the speed of a runaway car while being penetrated by it. The center of gravity would be higher than the car's to prevent climbing and overturning. Perhaps straw and broken cornstalks mixed with a tar binder would provide the desired characteristics. No one really knows; this is a problem for the physicist and the chemist.