August 2000 Bulletin

Passion for cars saved lives

Rochester medical society honors Dr. States

Those who know John States, MD, have little doubt that he may have saved more lives than any other orthopaedic surgeon.

Dr. States has combined a lifelong passion for motor vehicles, skill as an orthopaedic surgeon and political acumen to bring automobile safety to the attention of car manufacturers, politicians and the public. A pioneer in auto accident investigation, Dr. States is credited with being the primary force that lead New York state in 1984 to be first in the nation to mandate safety belts in autos. He is an early and active member in the Association for Advancement of Automotive Medicine, which has grown to become an international organization of doctors, engineers, legal experts and public health officials.

He also is proud of his years of work in developing the Accident Injury Scale and of having chaired the Committee on Injury Prevention of the Medical Society of the State of New York.

Dr. States is part of the "tapestry of the entire field of automotive safety," says Robert Good, who worked with him in automotive investigation at the University of Rochester Medical Center, N.Y.

In June, the 75-year-old orthopaedist was honored by the Rochester Academy of Medicine with the Albert Kaiser Medal for remarkable achievement in the medical and social community in Rochester, N.Y.

To say that he had a lifelong passion in cars is not an exaggeration. His brother, David, also an orthopaedic surgeon, recalls that when John was six or seven years old he was building toy cars and later built Soap Box Derby-type cars and motor scooters. "Before John was in high school, he had an understanding of transmissions," says the brother. "He may have had the longest running subscription to Popular Mechanics magazine."

When Dr. States was in high school he spent a summer building a three-wheel, two-seat car that he occasionally drove to school. The 11/2 horsepower car could get 50 miles to the gallon.His early career as a "grease monkey" got underway as a senior in high school. His father, a family physician and proctologist, allowed his sons to sell an outboard motor and buy a 1934 Chevrolet that had been sitting in a field throughout World War II. In the next four years, the States boys bought, repaired and sold 15 or 20 cars, providing a steady flow of pocket money.

"My essential interest was cars and I was going to be an engineer, but I was sidetracked" [and became an orthopaedic surgeon]," says Dr. States. However, his love of cars never wavered. Fascinated by auto racing, he was the physician at auto racetracks for 10 years.

Dr. States says a defining moment came in an emergency room when he was treating a woman who had been driving a VW van that hit the back of a truck. She had suffered bilateral tibia and fibula fractures.

Dr. States and his brother tracked down the vehicle, took photos and saw that the truck’s rear bumper was higher than the front bumper of the VW so that it crashed through the thin metal body of the van and hit the drivers legs.

From then on instead of just being the physician treating accident-related injuries, Dr. States would learn what caused the injuries by taking photos and measurements of the vehicles involved in the crashes. Throughout the 1960s, he documented auto crashes and collected cases of severe crashes from his associates—all without outside funding. In 1969, received federal funding for his work. Working with a staff of half a dozen people and a full-time mechanic, and using his knowledge of cars and the human body, he found ways to prevent injuries.

He could see the link between the fractured patellae of front seat passengers and protrusions on dashboards or the crushed chests of drivers and the rigid steering columns. His research and personal contacts with auto companies lead to many changes to make autos safer.

In the 1960s, he outfitted his car with a shoulder harness, headrest and rollbar, urging legislation for safer cars.

Still in love with cars—he owns four—Dr. States says today’s autos "are remarkably safe. The accident death rate has been lowered from 54,000 [a year] to 40,000. But more work needs to be done."


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