Currently, car crash test regimens require only that a male-representing dummy be used.
Once every six minutes: the U.S Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report showed that there was about one car crash every six minutes in the United States in 2020 (the latest year the data is available). Put another way, there are about 14,386 accidents per day and 5,250,873 police-reported car accidents per year – and women are at a greater risk for being injured or killed in those car accidents than men are.
Women are the majority of the drivers and are historically less likely to get into a crash than men are – but they are also 17% more likely to die in a car crash and 73% more likely to sustain serious injuries from a crash than men are. Despite these risks however, car companies’ crash test regimes require tests on only male-representing dummies (or simply, “male dummies”), leaving women unrepresented and unsafe.
The first car crash tests, which were conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s, used living men – not dummies – as test subjects based on the idea that men were more likely to die in car crashes than women. When dummies replaced live testers, restricted funds limited the development of a female dummy alongside her male counterpart. Instead, the effects of car crashes were measured only on a male test dummy called the Hybrid III, which was created in 1976 and is still used today: almost 50 years later. The Hybrid III ostensibly represents the average male at 171 pounds and 5-foot-9-inches – but since men today weigh over 25 pounds more than they did in the 1970s, the Hybrid III doesn’t even represent them – much less women – accurately.
Today, a female dummy does exist but isn’t required in the four different tests that form the current and complete car crash test regime. Those tests, performed for both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), include
A male dummy is required for all those four tests, but a female dummy is not. A female dummy is allowed to “drive” during one of NHTSA’s side-impact tests and in IIHS’ side impact test and to be a rear seat passenger in those side-impact tests but its usage is not mandatory.
In the few tests where a female dummy can be included, moreover, the model used today doesn’t represent – and, subsequently, doesn’t keep safe – the average woman. For one, it is just a scaled-down version of the male dummy; it doesn’t have any of the physiological differences that women have, such as being smaller and lighter, having broader hips and wider pelvises, and sitting closer to the wheel than men.
It also represents the smallest 5% of women by the standards of the mid-1970s: 149cm tall (4 feet 8 inches) and weighing 48kg (105 pounds). The average women has only grown taller (161.8 cm or 5 foot 4 inches) and heavier (77.1kg or over 170 pounds) since then, further limiting the female dummy’s ability to represent the average women. In fact, the female dummy currently used is so small that it can double as the car crash test dummy for a 12 to 13 year-old child.
In short, as of 2019, “an average adult female crash test dummy simply does not exist” according to Consumer Reports.
Women are 17% more likely to die in a car crash and 73% more likely to sustain serious injuries from … [+]
The result has been car safety innovations that benefit men and men only. For example, women are two to three times more likely to suffer whiplash injuries than men, likely because they have less muscle and more boniness around their neck than men do. Out of the two different whiplash protection designs from the 1990s though, only one protected men and women equally. The other reduced life-altering whiplash crash injuries up to 70% for male occupants – and had no benefit for female vehicle occupants.
Airbags are another example. In the late 1990s, women and children were dying in low-impact collisions that shouldn’t have been fatal. The culprits were the airbags, which aimed to keep a male in the 50th percentile of height and weight in his seat – and didn’t adjust their force for a woman or a child. Instead of protecting the car’s inhabitants, these airbags were actually leading to their fatalities until September 1998 when the NHTSA required advanced airbags: ones that deployed with proportional force.
Women are two to three times more likely to suffer whiplash injuries than men are.
As a workaround for the historical lack of accurate female representation – in car crash dummies, car crash testing regulations, and car safety features – some automakers are turning to computer models to mimic how bodies of different sizes and genders, not just the “average” male body, will react to a crash.
The government has become involved in this issue as well; over the past few years members of Congress have argued for and have introduced bills supporting gender parity in car crash testing. In January 2022, the Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote that “past federal transportation investments have too often failed to address inequities, or even made them worse” because those opportunities and projects did not “engage and utilize women and people of color”.
A 3D-rendering of a destroyed car. Technology, such as 3D renderings and computer models, can help … [+]
The biggest step forward in car crash testing, though, may have been taken not by the government but by a group of researchers, led by Dr. Astrid Linde, at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute in Linköping, Sweden. In 2022, just last year, they created a new female car crash test dummy who represents about the 50th percentile of women in height (162cm or 5 feet 3 inches tall) and 25th percentile in weight (62kg or 137 pounds): the best – and only – representation of the average women since car crash tests started over 50 years ago.
This dummy’s very existence may mark a pivotal point in car crash testing and the safety of women in cars. Its creation may be the first step in requiring female dummies to be used in the NHTSA and IIHS car crash test and, in turn, may lead to additional data, new and improved safety innovations in vehicles, and the first equal representation in car crash tests. And with a representative female as an actual, active participant instead of simply an afterthought, women may no longer be the disproportionate victims of the car crashes that happen in the United States once every six minutes.