The HANS device can save the life of anyone in a race car, but what is it like to wear?
Accidents happen most often at the end of the workday. So it was for Dale Earnhardt, who crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Why this fatal crash on this day?
Fate is one answer, but there is a technical answer to that question as well. When a race car crashes and decelerates suddenly the structure of the car usually protects the driver from contact with the rest of the environment. The five-point harness distributes the crash forces across the driver’s body and also keeps the driver in the seat so that crash structure can do its job. Even if the driver’s head is struck by an object, the helmet usually saves his or her life.
However, when a forward or front-angle impact occurs, the driver’s head continues forward when the body is stopped by the restraints. This can cause severe injuries inside the brain and neck that can kill, even if there are no marks on the body of the driver. Part of the problem is the helmet which adds mass to the already heavy head.
Whether the Head and Neck System, known as HANS would have saved Dale Sr. is not the real point. We mention Earnhardt’s death because it marked a safety turning point in modern racing. Every racer now wears the HANS device, and it has even trickled down to media testing of street cars on slow private tracks. Which is how I came to be wearing a HANS device made by Simpson Hybrid head restraints during a track-test of the amazing Cadillac ATS-V performance coupe.
The HANS device works by keeping a driver’s head in place in a crash and distributing energy to the driver’s body and the vehicle’s seat and structure. The image above shows the way one’s head reacts with and without it in a crash. The device is worn on the body. A solid composite body brace goes around the driver. It looks like a back-pack in a way, and indeed it is put on just like a backpack. The apparatus is much lighter than its bulky look would imply.
The device then has straps to secure it to the body and also to the rear sides of the driver’s helmet. I had assistance from Cadillac employees who were kind enough to provide the safety equipment. At this same track, at this same event, I had driven a Camaro ZL-1 convertible, helmet-less just four years earlier at over 100 miles per hour. Things change.
Wearing the HANS device from Simpson Hybrid head restraints is sort of an “Aha!” moment. Although one knows intuitively that its job is to hold the head in place, you are not mentally ready for the reality of that. The device works – amazingly well, but does allow for some movement. Side to side movement is restricted, though you don’t feel as constrained as you would expect.
Once it is on, you instinctively want to move your head around, and it takes a little mental discipline not to try to pull your head forward. You don’t know it, but you dip your chin many times per minute. When you can’t anymore, you get a little bit anxious. My device was fitted to me quickly and was a bit too restraining. Normally, drivers can dip their chin a bit.
Once in the car, the device is easier to live with. As the joke goes, “What is behind you does not matter” when on a racetrack, and you need to be focused down the track a long ways in order to move the car safely along the course. By the end of a lap I had become accustomed to the restraint. Even sporty cars have great mirrors these days, and I was able to use them effectively. Turning to look over a shoulder is a habit I have, and I recently learned is a requirement to pass the Massachusetts driving test. You need to forget that when you maneuver a car in the paddock with a HANS device on.
The biggest surprise is how effective the HANS device is. A properly-fitting crash helmet won’t allow you to move your head inside it, so once inside the HANS apparatus, you learn to look side to side by using your eyeballs and some movement of your whole upper torso. It’s no picnic, but after having worn it, the benefits became much easier to understand.
Our thanks to HANS Performance Products and Simpson Hybrid head restraints for their help with images and information.
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