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YOU'VE seen them a million times. You know... those bright yellow plastic barrels that protect wayward motorists when things get out of control on the freeway. Over the years, they have saved countless lives, and, it could be argued, are one of the most significant pieces of safety equipment since the invention of the seat belt.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/08/2003 (6995 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

YOU’VE seen them a million times. You know… those bright yellow plastic barrels that protect wayward motorists when things get out of control on the freeway. Over the years, they have saved countless lives, and, it could be argued, are one of the most significant pieces of safety equipment since the invention of the seat belt.

Where did they come from? Who put them there? How do they work?

The answers to these questions actually have their origins in the 1955 LeMans 24-hour endurance race, in France, where over 130 people were killed when the Mercedes 300 of Pierre Levegh crashed near the pit straight and disintegrated into a fiery ball as it spiralled into the crowd. It is one of the most spectacular and disturbing images in the history of motorsport.

“Levegh was my driving partner,” explains John Fitch, who was also driving for Mercedes in that year, and was in the pits awaiting his turn behind the wheel when the accident happened. “The barriers around the LeMans track in those days were made of woven branches — like wicker — and when the car hit the barrier, it was literally torn apart.”

Film footage shot during the crash shows missile-like projectiles hurtling through the crowd, killing spectators where they stood. “The engine and front suspension are what did most of the damage,” says Fitch. “They flew into the crowd at head height, and people were simply decapitated. Press reports at the time claimed 85 people were killed. That was at the scene. The final number was more like 130.”

Fitch puts the blame for the 1955 LeMans catastrophe squarely on the shoulders of British driver, Mike Hawthorne, who apparently overshot the pits and braked suddenly, forcing Levegh to swerve. At Fitch’s urging, legendary Mercedes racing team manager, Alfred Neubauer, withdrew from the race. “You have to remember the times,” adds Fitch. “It was 1955, and the war (WW II) had ended just ten years before. There were still guard towers from prisoner-of-war camps at the edge of the track. You could see them.”

After the LeMans tragedy, Fitch returned to the U.S., and embarked on a successful racing career, competing on various road courses and tracks until the 1960s. Among other things, he won the GT class at the Mille Miglia road race, in Italy, in 1955, and drove for legendary American car-builder, Briggs Cunningham at LeMans, in 1960. He also became director of the Lime Rock racing circuit, in Connecticut, in 1957, supervising its construction and design. “But I always thought about that LeMans race,” he remembers, “and became kind of obsessed with safety.”

Thus the familiar yellow Fitch Barriers, which first appeared in 1968. Fitch built a prototype in 1961, and approached General Motors’ then-president, Ed Kohl, for funding. “I’d been supplying performance kits for Corvair, so there was a natural connection.” GM was intrigued, but needed proof, so a demonstration was organized at an airport in upstate New York. Corporate suits and journalists were bused in and Fitch proceeded to drive various cars into the barriers….at 100 km/h…..seven times. He is the only known inventor of highway safety products to personally crash-test his own design.

The right people were impressed and plans were made to start building and installing the Fitch Speed Barrier everywhere. “Originally, Union Carbide built them,” explains Fitch, “because they had a patent on similar container technology using polystyrene plastic.” Eventually, Fitch’s patent ran out after about 20 years.

According to John Fitch, the principles behind the barriers are simple. “It’s pure Newton’s Law,” he explains. “A graduated decrease in momentum and increased energy absorption.” Fitch’s original design called for at least five barrels, set up like bowling pins. The first barrel, which takes the brunt of the impact, is 1/3 full of sand and water, with the bottom of the barrel containing “frangible”, or collapsible plastic supports. These are designed to break and their primary purpose is to slow the car down, not absorb energy.

The second and third barrels — side by side — are about half full of sand and water contained within several layers of plastic. Again, the idea is to slow the vehicle down until it reaches the final three barrels, which are full of sand. “The friction of the sand particles rubbing against each other is what finally stops the car….what I call the ‘bulldozer’ effect,” adds Fitch. There have been various refinements to the original design over the years, but the principles are essentially unchanged.

These days, the 87-year-old Fitch is extolling the virtues of his latest safety devices; the low-angle impact barrier and high angle compression barrier, as well as an in-car driver protection system, the Driver Capsule. These devices are aimed at race car drivers and are intended for use in motorsport competition. “In the early days, there were ditches, trees, and shrubs waiting for the unfortunate driver who went off-course,” he says, “We have to put the dangerous road races behind us.”

A telling observation from someone who has participated in some of the most dangerous races of all.

For more info, you can visit

John Fitch’s web site at:

www.racesafety.com

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