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HANS device – how a simple brace met with scepticism revolutionized safety in racing

Racing cars do not have airbags. With the speeds they are dealing with an airbag could do more damage than good. However, there is one device that saved hundreds of lives form whiplash injury. HANS (Head and Neck Support) is a head restraint that reduces the likelihood of head and neck injuries. Nowadays we are convinced with its effectiveness, but back in the day it was greeted with scepticism.

HANS device was met with scepticism and some drivers thought it is cumbersome and unnecessary. Image credit: Bo Nash via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

HANS device was invented by a professor of biomechanical engineering Dr. Robert Hubbard. Talking to his brother-in-law Jim Downing about the tragic death of a mutual friend, Hubbard started thinking about what causes a basilar skull fracture. Whiplash head and neck traumas are caused by a sudden stop of the body and head still moving forward due to inertia. For example, when a racing car crashes into a wall, driver’s body stops suddenly with the vehicle, because it is tied down with various harnesses. However, driver’s head remains in the forward motion, which may result in serious injury and death. Hubbard performed a lot of tests until he finalised the design of the HANS device and was convinced with it effectiveness.

However, at that time in 1990 major companies rejected the product idea. Hubbard and Downing decided to produce and market the device themselves. Eventually the product started gaining traction and it was offered in a variety of different races. However, it was not mandatory for a long time and some racing drivers rejected the HANS device with passion. Dale Earnhardt from NASCAR called the device “that damn noose” and was convinced that in a crash it would do more harm than good. Earnhardt was killed in a crash in 2001. It is believed that HANS device could have saved him or at least would have improved his chances of survival.

A crash, where the co-driver is wearing a HANS device and the driver isn’t

Even after numerous deaths that could be prevented by a HANS device, racing drivers were not very supportive of the idea. They believed that the device is restraining too much and would not be effective. However, several researches, including one performed by Mercedes, proved the effectiveness of HANS device. Eventually, the body of research became so overwhelming that HANS device became a standard in the auto racing.

And for a good reason. HANS device is made from composite materials and consist of two major parts. One is a shoulder brace. It is a padded harness that is put around the neck and on the shoulders. The second one is the helmet support – helmet is tethered to the shoulder pads, preventing sudden forward movement of the head. This is how it looks like.

Components of the HANS device. Image credit: Dake via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Here 1 is the HANS device itself, 2 – tethers, 3 – helmet anchors and 4 – shoulder support. Nowadays Hans device is mandatory in a lot of auto racing types. It already save hundreds of lives and will save even more. People who have experienced crashes with and without the device and convinced that it is very effective and in many cases drivers walk away unharmed from crashes that previously would’ve resulted in huge injuries or death.


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