For most of the last century and through the first decade of this one, male dummies have cost women their lives on the highways. No, I’ m not talking about guys who engage in risky driving practices such as: speeding, driving while impaired, or driving-while-texting. I’m talking about the crash dummies (CDs) used in vehicle safety testing. But I suppose I’m also talking about auto manufacturers who worry about their bottom line more than safety, because that’s why we went almost 50 years assuming that using a male crash dummy would cover 95% of drivers.
That may have been true in the past. But more women are working outside the home, raising kids carpooling to school, and transporting kids to sports leagues and other extracurricular activities. Their clout with auto dealers has risen, so why did it take so long for the industry’s great minds to realize that people smaller (or larger) than 5’9″ and 172 lbs might experience impacts differently?
I’m guessing money, for starters; since research and development of crash dummies costs a lot of it. But I think it may also have to do with the absence of women in the vehicle design and testing fields. I mean, the auto industry only recently came to the realization that women are making more of the decisions today about which vehicle is best suited to their family size and lifestyle. So it seemed perfectly fine in the beginning to just paint make-up on a male dummy and attach a bow to its head to replicate a female passenger.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 created the first nationwide automotive safety standards, though manufacturers’ safety testing began in the 1930s to prove reliability and win over those skeptical of the usefulness of the horseless carriage. In the early days of collision testing, cadavers were the crash dummies. Manufactured crash dummies weren’t added to frontal crash testing until 1973. One of the intricate first models, the Hybrid II, cost so much that testers decided to use only the one design, perhaps assuming that if an average-sized man could survive a crash, someone smaller would, too. It wasn’t until 2011 that safety watchdogs began substituting a smaller female dummy (4’11″/108 lbs) for some of the tests.
The female CD is also used to simulate a 12-year old child. But what of those who fit between those models? The average US male is 5’9″/195 lbs and the average US female is 5’4″/165 lbs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What about the obese? How differently will they fare in accidents? These are questions safer vehicle advocates have been asking for years, since the inception of the five star rating system in the late 1970s!
Experts in biomechanics have found that the smaller your frame, the less impact your body can withstand. In accidents involving side crashes, the more diminutive the driver or passenger, the more pelvic and abdominal injuries that resulted. But, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, smaller drivers receive fewer chest injuries. Research also shows that because women’s necks tend not to be as muscular as men’s, we are more at risk for whiplash injuries, which occur often as a result of rapid acceleration or sudden stops.
Because we are usually shorter than men, we move our seats forward to get closer to the pedals and sit up straighter for greater visibility. This puts us in a position where our heads and necks are closer and more vulnerable to the steering wheel air bag. When the steering wheel air bag deploys, it strikes the average man in the chest. Women get smacked in the head and neck when it deploys.
Though there isn’t a lot of data available on how different crashes impact female drivers, the Washington Post reported on a 2011 University of Virginia Center for Applied Biomechanics study which found that, in the real collisions they studied, seat-belted women drivers had a 47% higher risk of sustaining grave injuries or death than their male counterparts in similar collisions. Women are 71% more at risk of sustaining less severe injuries. These numbers are confirmed also by nationwide police reporting.
Men drive more than women by 5,000 miles per year, which could be why three men die in accidents for every woman killed. 25% of all driver fatalities are women, as are 50% of passengers killed, according to NHTSA. Women are driving less and dying more, disproportionately to men.
Consumer advocates and critics of the current compliance testing contend that not using female dummies as drivers in frontal crash tests of SUVs, vans and other vehicles popular with women denies the them important information needed for making the best decisions regarding safety. The NHTSA estimates that 60% of fatal crashes are frontal crashes.
The UVA Center for Applied Biomechanics (CAB) has been heavily involved in developing the newest generation of crash dummies, called THOR.
According to their website, “the Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint (THOR) anthropomorphic test device (ATD) is the latest generation of frontal crash test dummy. The THOR has arisen out of identification of limitations of the Hybrid-III, which is currently utilized in regulatory and consumer safety frontal crash tests. CAB played a central role in the development and evaluation of the THOR advanced crash dummy and advanced injury criteria for use with the THOR for more than 15 years.” THORs are designed to provide greater “real life” results than the Hybrid-III.
In recent years, auto manufacturers across the board have made great improvements in interior safety design to better protect vehicle occupants. The NHTSA cautions car shoppers to not compare pre-2011 safety ratings with 2017 ratings because they are not comparable because the new standards are more stringent and how scores are awarded completely different. The bar has been raised on safety.
Here’s hoping that it doesn’t take another half century to get better-designed vehicles that drop the mortality rate of women drivers. If recognition of a problem is the first step toward fixing it, I think we’re on our way to safer cars for drivers of all shapes and sizes.