In the mid-1980s, crash test dummies Vince and Larry famously broke through America’s television sets as iconic reminders of seatbelt safety. With their catchy tagline of “You can learn a lot from a dummy, buckle your seatbelt,” the two figures became simultaneous with increased seatbelt use and life-saving information through nationwide public safety campaigns.

From 1985 through 1998, Vince and Larry were on the move, saving lives and becoming cult figures in America’s efforts to improve driver safety. As part of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum’s exhibit “America on the Move,” General Motors, the dummies’ creators, recently celebrated the icons’ 25-year anniversary by donating them to the exhibit.

“We learned a lot from dummies and a lot of smart engineers too,” said Greg Martin, director of General Motors Corp. Policy and Washington Communications. “The industry was making good strides in safety but the most important thing was to get people to actually buckle up and that’s where a real difference was made in changing people’s behaviors. That’s where Vince and Larry helped so much really raised awareness and education among the driving public.”

During commercialized car crashes, Vince and Larry would often be shown flying face-first out of windshields without the restraint of seatbelts. As crash test dummies, they would repeatedly dust themselves off from otherwise fatal car crashes to remind viewers to buckle up. Their realistic depictions, coupled with increased seatbelt laws, nearly doubled seatbelt use during their 13-year run.

“Now, we’re looking at belt use at nearly 90 percent. Prior to Vince and Larry, it was 50 to 60 , so it’s really been doubled in that period,” Martin said. “… had a huge effect on changing driver’s behaviors and that was the real last hurdle in helping improve chances in a crash.”

Although Vince and Larry haven’t appeared in a commercial in over 10 years, seat belt use continues to improve. The state of Maryland has seen a steady increase in passenger belt use since 2002, rising from 85.8 percent to 94 percent in 2009 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Web site. Belt use in Washington, D.C., has also increased, rising from 85.4 percent in 2006 to 93.0 percent in 2009. As a result, the rise in seatbelt use has helped reduce traffic fatalities nationwide, which were down 8.9 percent in 2009 compared to 2008. Traffic fatalities in general have been steadily decreasing over the past few years, down 22 percent in 2009 since peaking in 2005.

Because nationwide belt use is operating at close to 84 percent according to NHTSA, Vince and Larry are not used much anymore. Ad campaigns have focused more on eliminating drunk driving and texting while driving over the past few years. Although both actions remain difficult to combat, as seen with Vince and Larry, effort and education is all it takes.

“Millions of lives have been saved on America’s roadways thanks to the combined efforts of lawmakers, automakers, engineers and safety advocates,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, in a press release.

For more information on the Smithsonian’s American History Museum’s exhibit “America on the Move,” visit:

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO