Please tell us about yourself

Without warning, a car-sized object slams into a stopped car. It hits the front on the driver’s side. The oncoming car is traveling at 90 kilometers (56 miles) per hour.

Thor, a high-tech crash dummy, sits in the driver’s seat of the stopped car. The force that caused the wreck flings Thor around like a rag doll.

Greg Shaw and his team watch the grisly smashup. Shaw notes that the crash lasts around 120 milliseconds. He describes this amount of time as a bit longer than an eye blink. A biomechanical engineer, Shaw deliberately crashes cars for a living.  He works at the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

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What did you study?

Greg Shaw, who received a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Strathclyde Department of Bioengineering in 1997, is an engineer with 22 years of experience in vehicle occupant safety research with extensive experimental testing experience with both crash dummies and postmortem human subjects. He did his Bachelors and Masters in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University.

Shaw’s cool job uses geometry, a field of math that involves shapes — especially points, lines, planes, curves and surfaces. Many other exciting jobs also rely on geometry. Here we meet three people who use this math to explore how people and objects move.

Please tell us about your work

Shaw’s work combines thrilling action with careful research. He tries to reduce deaths and injuries by making cars safer for their occupants. He collects data on accidents after they’re over. He also collects data during the crashes that he simulates in his lab. Since 2008, Shaw has worked with the Crash Injury Research Engineering Network (CIREN). It’s a program of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. CIREN is made up of medical and engineering teams that are located around the United States. Shaw is on the University of Virginia and Inova Fairfax Hospital team, a CIREN group in Virginia.

How does your work benefit the community?

Working alongside a CIREN crash investigator, Shaw probes accidents serious enough to send people to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va.

The team examines the medical charts of patients who participate in their investigations. The search is on for clues. These might include photographs or descriptions of the person’s injuries. Such evidence can tell a lot about how someone got hurt.

The researchers also examine the wrecked cars. This allows them to measure how much the smash-up had deformed each vehicle.

The duo also looks for clues inside the car. They search for any sign that an occupant made contact with parts of the car during the crash. For example, sometimes a person’s head will hit one of the car’s A-pillars. These two components support a car by keeping its windshield in place. Heads often are injured when they slam into an A-pillar. Scuff marks on the surface of an A-pillar and scrapes on someone’s forehead also can point to that structural pillar as the source of that injury, Shaw notes.

Newer cars have devices called event data recorders (EDRs), notes Shaw. These are like an airplane’s “black box,” or flight data recorders. EDRs record data immediately before and during car crashes, including a car’s speed right before the impact. They also record whether the driver had braked.

After analyzing all of these data, the team brainstorms how a car might be modified in a way to increase occupant safety.

In the lab, Shaw and his team focus on collisions known as “frontal oblique impacts.” These are frontal impacts that hit closer to one side than the other. For example, if something smashes into the body of a car near the headlight on the driver’s side, striking at a 30 degree angle, this is a frontal oblique crash.

A degree is a unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one 360th of the circumference of a circle. So for a frontal oblique impact with a 30 degree angle, there is a space between the incoming object and the car that is equal to one-twelfth the circumference of a circle (360° ÷ 30° = 12).

Shaw found that the crashes he studies follow a pattern. Typically, one vehicle is stopped at a traffic light. A second car approaches from the opposite direction. The driver of that second car loses control of the vehicle and swerves into the stopped car’s lane. Then it slams into the front end of the stopped car. It does so at an angle that is about 15 degrees from a head-on collision.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Such crashes are common. And they often result in occupants becoming seriously injured or killed, Shaw notes. That’s why he chose to study them.

Growing up, Shaw didn’t picture himself having a career involving geometry. He was first interested in the design aspects of engineering, like the skills that he uses when he brainstorms ways to modify cars so people will be safer. He now finds geometry “a useful and necessary tool” for his work.