Couer d' Alene Press - Thursday, July 25, 2002


Lakeland graduate works to keep pregnant drivers more safe

Laura Thackray is a special girl, her mother says, because she sees a problem and does something about it. Of course any mother is allowed to be very proud of her children, and Linda Thackray is equally proud of Laura and her three sisters. But Laura, a former Athol resident no living in Sweden, has taken many steps to make the world a better, if not safer, place.
Right now, she is leading the world's research into safer seat belts, especially for expectant mothers. This year, working with Volvo Cars, Thackray designed the world's first computer model of a pregnant crash dummy. The model shows how the mother and her fetus can be impacted in a collision, including any effect of seat belts or air bags. In addition to the trauma of an accident that the mother could suffer, fetuses could suffer head injuries from hitting the pelvic bone, or having the placenta detach from the uterus, depriving the fetus of oxygen.
Previous crash dummies have been infants or different sized-people, and other manufacturers are looking at different pregnant models. But Thackray said the Volvo project is the only one that includes a placenta and fetus in the model.
"Laura is doing very, very, very well," Linda Thackray said.
She began work on the project in fall 2000, receiving a contract to work at the Volvo Cars Safety Center. At the same time, she enrolled in a master's of engineering program a Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. The school, which works closely with Volvo, Saab and Autoliv, is considered the MIT of Sweden.
These studies were a good next step in a longtime interest in automotive safety. Thackray admits she's a "safety freak," a trait she acquired from her father. She said that her father would refuse the start the car until everyone buckled up and locked their doors. He also gave the girls smoke detectors to take with them to various scout camps.
Living near U.S. 95 also taught Thackray the importance of safety and how dangerous cars can be.
Following graduation from Lakeland High School in 1994, she signed up for classes at North Idaho College, and then entered the mechanical engineering program at UI.
Automotive safety was still a priority, made more crucial when her sister became pregnant. As part of her UI research, she surveyed 250 women in North Idaho, asking them about seat belt use or common discomfort. This survey was included in her Volvo research, along with newer data from Swedish women.
She found that current selt belts, developed in 1959, can be confining, even painful to pregnant women. Some solve this by putting the belt higher or lower than it is supposed to safely go, some solve this by not wearing seat belts at all. Neither option is safe.
Thackray had a better idea, which she's still hoping to make real some day. While at UI, she and professor Donald Blackletter came up with a seat belt design that doesn't dig into a pregnant woman's stomach like a lap belt, but instead covers her stomach like a harness.
She and Blackletter also published a paper in the Journal of International Society of Auto Engineers that describes the effects of accidents on pregnant women with normal seat belts and features her proposed belt design. "It's like a science project with her," Linda Thackray said. "She always had top grades."
But with her UI degree complete, the effort almost stalled. Thackray applied for a Fulbright Grant to study in Sweden, one of the premier honors given to students who want to study abroad. She did very well on the various qualifications for the grant, but then found out the summer of 2000 she was an alternate, not a finalist, for the Fullbright award.
This still opened the doors at Chalmers to her, but she had to find enough money in a hurry to make it to northern Europe that fall. Hard work that summer as a mechanical engineer at Encoder Products Co. in Sandpoint earned her enough money for the first semester, and the school found her an apartment with a Swedish woman and her 6-year-old daughter.
Since then, her mother said Laura has tried to get a variety of scholarships, including a lot of support from the American Swedish Women Association. "They even paid for her travel to come home," Linda Thackray said. "She really finds a way to make it happen."
Laura's mother said Laura isn't sure what the future will hold. This summer, she's in Italy. She'll likely continue at Volvo, but may pause in her schooling, though some people have asked her to get her Ph.D. "I think she's tired of school," she said.
Eventually, she would like to work with Ford, which now owns Volvo. "She feels this is a good foot in the door for her," Linda Thackray said. "She has talked to Ford in Michigan, and they're working on pregnancy dummies, but she thinks hers is better."
Laura is the only one in the family to follow an engineering career path. An older sister is a chef, a younger sister is a mom, and the youngest hopes to be an attorney. Her parents have told every daughter that they can take any path they want. "They're all individuals - you do your best and let them know you care," Linda Thackray said.

Laura Thackray, a Lakeland High School
graduate, is leading the world's research
in safer cars for expectant mothers.



The name for the virtual pregnant model is GHIII50%, which evolved from the Swedish word for pregnant. HIII stands for Hybrid 3, and 50% refers to the 50 percentile, an average female.