As his grandchildren's laughter filters through the screen door, Carl Clark talks about his commitment to cushioning life's blows. Retired from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 73-year-old scientist is still advocating interior air bags for airplanes, trains and school buses. He's promoting ,, exterior air bags that spring from auto bumpers. He's even invented a wearable air bag that inflates to prevent broken hips in the elderly.
Clark has spent 35 years urging the use of air bags -- a concept he helped develop in 1961. Now, faced by widespread alarm over air bag-caused deaths, his biggest fear is that people will disconnect the devices he's worked so hard to give them.
"The overall message, of course, is that air bags are so much safer than the dangers they pose," the scientist says. "You ought to learn the dangers and deal with them."
On the other hand, he adds, air bags can -- and should -- be improved. The speed of the air bag's inflation presents the greatest hazard, he says. As far back as the 1960s, he warned of the danger rapidly inflating bags pose to children, especially if they were not wearing seat belts.
Clark has long preached that air bags should operate on crash anticipation: a radar-controlled system that senses a potential collision far enough in advance to allow air bags to inflate slowly.
And he believes that a system of exterior air bags, used in conjunction with radar-controlled brakes, will eventually become
standard equipment. With the help of co-designer Bill Young, an air bag inventor from Nevada, Clark has presented five international papers on bumper air bags in the past three years.
What's still missing, he says, is the public demand and the production strategy to make commercial devices. (His crash tests have only used inflated bags.)
Bumper air bags is not an idea that will make this scientist rich; a patent on the notion of exterior air bags was filed years ago. Clark just wants to see it save lives.
"I get paid for about a quarter of my time -- the other three-quarters is thinking about the future," he says. "Bumper air bags will definitely happen. It'll just take a while."
And let the record show Carl Clark is a patient man. He independently invented and tested air bag systems for astronauts in 1962 when he was manager for the life sciences department at Baltimore's Glenn L. Martin Co. Later, his department won the first government contract to design air bag restraints. After Clark's tests proved air bags could protect astronauts, it wasn't long before he ran tests demonstrating their ability to reduce fatalities in aircraft as well as automobiles.
It took several decades, and various political regimes, before interior air bags became standard equipment in cars. In 1965, Clark recommended auto companies install air bags for side impact protection -- now standard in Volvo and Mercedes Benz models. And he directed the first contract that proved the benefit of a side air bag while working for the traffic safety administration.
A life's work
On a sunny summer afternoon, the scientist is showing a videotape of career highlights in the kitchen of his Catonsville home. Soft-spoken but enthusiastic, Clark still talks about his work with the excitement of the youngster who used to daydream about making water turbine engines for cars. Now, he develops projects in the home where he and his wife Betty, a retired attorney, have lived since 1962. And it's not unusual, he says somewhat apologetically, for his research to consume chunks of the house: a steering wheel column with its air bag has temporarily taken up residence in the dining room while he reviews material for a court appearance.
Clark also serves as an expert witness in automobile safety litigation. He recently appeared on a television program investigating unnecessary burns resulting from poorly designed air bags on steering wheels.
"Some of the early air bags had gas vents right where your hands were and would burn you when they inflated," he says. "Chrysler knew how to fix it -- and did for new cars -- but did not for the cars they had already produced."
Clark is also concerned about the safety of glass in automobiles: He advocates a system of glass-plastic side windows and windshields that protect passengers from ejecting through windows in a crash, even if the car rolls over.
"The big auto companies all know how to make [glass-plastic] but it costs a little bit more and the government has dragged its feet in requiring it," he says. "It's like the early days of the air bag: It's there, people know how to do it -- but they're not doing it yet. It will happen."
A better place
Born into a family where many relatives served as missionaries, Clark says he grew up with the notion it was important to leave the world better off than he found it. Raised in Massachusetts, he received an undergraduate degree in physics and a doctorate in zoology -- "I'm a biophysicist, one of those hybrid people" -- and has taught at various colleges including Cornell Medical College, the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania.
In the late 1950s, Clark was centrifuge training officer for the X-15 pilots and Mercury astronauts in the acceleration laboratory of the Naval Air Development Center. He conducted tests to find out how much acceleration humans could take before they passed out. Clark even volunteered himself as the first human ever to experience 2G for 24 hours.
"This was in the days when you just went out and did things," he shrugs modestly. "We were all trying to help out."
After working with the NADC, he moved to Baltimore to work with Martin. Over the years, he also worked on safety standards for flammable fabrics and sleepwear at the National Bureau of Standards, set up the Life Sciences Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ran a satellite information program and worked for the Library of Congress in its science and technology division.
And he found time to invent such safety devices as retrorocket brakes and air bags to guard the elderly against broken hips resulting from falls.
Clark's hip air bag is a double layer of plastic meant to be worn over the hip inside a person's underwear. The bag is connected to a Seltzer bottle-sized, stored gas inflater that carries sensors to detect a fall onto the hip.
His retrorocket braking system for cars can theoretically prevent crashes at speeds of 50 mph and above by shooting a rocket that makes the car stop more rapidly than the standard braking system.
"Skidding is a very inefficient way to decelerate," he points out. "Auto companies are still stuck on Physics One. They should learn Physics Two where you have to throw something out the front to decelerate.
"If you're tooling along at 50 miles an hour and see you're about to crash, you can fire this thing off and turn to the side of the road. And before you're off the 15-foot edge you would come to a stop.
He admits his idea, patented in 1971, may still be premature.
"There are a lot of problems with it," he says. "But, on the other side, if you see you're in a crash situation at 100 miles an hour and knew you could walk away from it? That should be the goal."
Clark is frustrated by crash safety standards he calls "half-speed, half-dead standards" calibrated to simulated collisions at 30 mph.
"At the beginning of the auto safety business, we all said to run the tests to higher speeds as quickly as possible. And the government has not done that; the industry is too powerful."
Meanwhile, the safety consultant drives a '92 Taurus equipped with driver and passenger air bags. The grandchildren always ride in the back seat, he says.
But doesn't he want a car with side door air bags?
"I'm not wealthy enough to afford a car with them," he says. "And the auto companies all have a time with it."
Pub Date: 7/07/97