Austrians Used Corpses to Study Car Crashes

Researchers at an Austrian university used human corpses to study how to develop better crash-test dummies, and authorities are now investigating whether the scientists should be charged with violating the dignity of the dead, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Researchers at the Technical University of Graz (search) used 21 bodies provided by The Medical University of Graz for tests performed between 1994 and 2003, said Alice Senarclens de Grancy, a spokeswoman for the Technical University.

Horst Sigl (search), a prosecutor in the southern city of Graz, said authorities are investigating whether researchers violated the dignity of the dead — a crime in Austria — by using the bodies in tests.

"The core of the problem is whether those used in the tests or their relatives gave permission," he said in a telephone interview.

During the tests, the bodies were placed in seats that moved with speeds up to 9 mph before being stopped in an effort to simulate a rear-end collision. Scientists observed how the bodies' vertebrae, upper bodies and backs moved.

Senarclens de Grancy (search) rejected any suggestion that the dignity of the dead could have been disturbed in the tests, saying they were carried out under strict ethical standards.

"It's not in any way a crash test as you might think about it," she said. "There is no car. There is no wall."

Using real bodies was necessary to develop a "dummy which is very similar to the human body, which reacts as the human body does," Senarclens de Grancy said.

The Medical University, a separate institution, has launched an internal investigation even though it was "confident that all had been done in order," spokeswoman Birgit Jauk said.

Anyone convicted in the case could face six months in prison or a fine, Sigl said, adding that the preliminary investigation likely would be finished in about a month.