Safety engineerJohn Fitch

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”I’ve always needed to go fast,” Fitch once told a reporter: after studying civil engineering, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II, where he flew a P-51 Mustang fighter — and managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 (the first fighter jet). After the war, Fitch was a well-known race car driver. His engineering background helped: he designed five cars during his career, as well as engine cooling systems, self-leveling car suspensions, a fireplace which makes use of waste heat, and a cervical-spine traction system to help people with neck injuries be able to move while recovering.

But he also applied his skills to safety, and one of his ideas was so good, it’s not only in use on racetracks, but also highways: collapsible barrels filled with sand or water which safely dissipate kinetic energy when hit by cars. They’re commonly found in the transitions between higher-speed lanes and offramps, among other places, greatly reducing the severity of crashes when people miss their exits. “There is no counting how many lives have been saved by these barrels,” AutoWeek magazine suggested in 2006. What prompted his interest in safety? In the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, Fitch’s partner, Pierre Levegh, was driving when he was cut off and crashed; pieces of his car flew into the crowd, killing 83 spectators and injuring 120 — the worst crash in auto racing history; Levegh was also killed. In addition to the barrel idea, Fitch “holds a number of patents for safety equipment including soft walls and sliding barriers for race tracks, and a shelf full of safety awards,” according to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America. Fitch said his efforts toward saving lives “is payback in a way.” He died October 31 from cancer and respiratory problems, at 95.

From This is True for 4 November 2012