The HANS Device No More a Pain in the Neck

The HANS One of The First Safety Devices in The History of Racing

During the first decades of car and motorcycle racing, fatal accidents and injuries were a common occurrence, as many safety devices and safety precautions were still to be invented or implemented. Discussing that matter with his brother-in-law Jon Downing, who just happened to be an expert pilot and a race car constructor, Dr. Robert Hubbard, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Michigan State University and former crash test researcher at General Motors, came to the conclusion that many fatalities could be avoided with a system that could prevent the driver from receiving serious head or neck injuries, especially the almost always fatal basilar skull fracture. Sure enough, during a crash, while the seat belts keep the driver’s body in position and prevent the inertia of the impact from affecting it, they cannot do the same with the head, which therefore will move forward violently and abruptly. Thus, in the early 80’ Dr. Robert Hubbard started developing the HANS (head and neck support), a head restraint whose purpose was to prevent the whipping and the excessive rotational movement of the head ensuing after a crash, while not limiting the neck movements. In other words, would only impede those motions that would exceed the normal articulation range of the muscoloskeletal system without diminishing the driver’s ability to turn his head.

Basically, the HANS is a carbon fibre U-shaped collar that envelops the driver’s neck and also features two arms that lie flat onto along the top of the chest over the pectoral muscles. Moreover, the entire structure is only connected to the helmet thanks to two tethers, one for each side. However, the shoulder support of the HANS device is secured by the body of the driver through the cross-disposed seat belts that are designed to pass over said shoulder support and to buckle in the middle of the driver’s abdomen. All of the aforementioned expedients are meant to drastically reduce the traction forces exerting on the driver’s neck by preventing his head from moving alongside his torso while also redirecting the energy of the impact to the more resistant torso, chest, shoulder support, seat belts and seat.

Dr. Robert Hubbert finished designing the first HANS prototype in 1985, and by 1989 it had already been tested successfully in several crash tests (very akin to the modern ones, as for the first time a crash sled and a crash dummy equipped with proper racecar seat belts were used to test a safety device), meanwhile his brother-in-law had been trying many possible configurations of the HANS directly on track. However, Dr. Robert Hubbert and Jon Downing could not find a racing safety company willing to manufacture the HANS, therefore they decided to start their own business, the Hubbard Downing Inc, in order to self-produce and self-promote their revolutionary invention. Still, they had to wait until 1994 to gain F1 attention and interest, and that only because Roland Ratzenberger died after a tremendous crash during the notorious 1994 Imola Grand Prix weekend, best known for Ayrton Senna’s untimely passing. Nevertheless, it took other two years before the FIA asked Mercedes to conduct some research on the new life-saving device, which in turn took another number of years. Mercedes concluded that the HANS device was indeed a needed safety element, performing far better even than their own airbags system (which never came to be). Unfortunately (and quite unsurprisingly, at this point) Formula One mandated the HANS device only in 2003, while CART and NASCAR had done the same thing two years prior, after a fatality that, considering everything in retrospective, could have been easily avoided. However, averting what one might be thinking, the responsibility for this apparently inexplicable delay does not lie (entirely) on the higher-ups, but on the drivers themselves. The case of Dale Earnhardt is a noteworthy one, since he, as well as many other NASCAR pilots, claimed that the HANS devices was uncomfortable and movement-limiting. Moreover, he added that I disliked the tethers, arguing during an accident they could have been more likely to hang him than save him. But in 2001, he suffered what we call “a karmic death” when he died during the last lap of the Daytona 500 from a basilar skull fracture.

As fables taught us, all is well what ends well, and sure this is the case, as since the HANS device was made mandatory, the number of drivers killed by a basilar skull fracture has been constantly diminishing. One of the most prominent examples of the utility of this life-saving device was the 2007 Canadian GP, during which Robert Kubica, at the time a BWM driver, collided with another car, shunted into the barriers and then proceeded to barrel roll from one side of the track to the other. What in the past could have been a life-threatening accident at best and a fatality at worst, turned out to be reduced to a bruised ankle and a cranic trauma with no serious consequence for the pilot. Considering this, we all should be thankful to that pair of in-laws that, one day in the 70’s, decided to take a risk create an opportunity for themselves and save the lives of many, many drivers.

Posted by John Holmes