John Cooper Fitch, 1917-2012

John Cooper Fitch died yesterday. I had never heard of Mr. Fitch either–he was a race driver most active in the 1950s–but you probably see his work every time you travel the freeway:

Fitch barrier

He invented the system of sand-filled plastic barrels you see at bridge pillars and the end of jersey barriers facing oncoming traffic at off-ramps. I drive by two of these every day on my way to work and had never really noticed them before today. In the 40+ years since their introduction on North American freeways, they’ve saved roughly 17,000 lives.

Mr. Fitch was inspired to work on traffic safety measures at the Le Mans endurance race in 1955, after a horrific accident killed his teammate and about 80 spectators. But the absolute best part of the story about Mr. Fitch’s invention is this:

The horror of the crash motivated Mr. Fitch to develop safety barriers, including one for the walls of racetracks to deflect a car and soften its impact. For the highway barrier, he began with liquor crates, filling them with different amounts of sand and then crashing into them himself at speeds of up to 70 m.p.h. to figure out what worked best.

HT: Steve Sailer