Are automobile crash tests biased against women?

This year, the University of Virginia released a study showing that, in frontal crashes, women are 73% more likely than men to be injured, even when they’re both wearing seat belts. This is probably because crash testing in automobiles doesn’t take into account the biological differences between men and women. Most crash tests use dummies that represent the average 1970s male.

In fact, there are no crash dummies in current use that represent an average female – even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been proposing since at least 1981 that testing facilities adopt one. The only female dummy being used corresponds to the smallest 5% of women, and these dummies are often also used to represent 12- and 13-year-old children in crash tests.

Yet female bodies are demonstrably different than male ones, and they react differently in crashes. But the government agencies and insurers who test cars for safety aren’t taking that into account.

According to government data, men drive more miles than women and are more likely to engage in risky behavior. That includes driving while intoxicated, speeding and not wearing a seat belt. Yet, even controlling for age, height and body mass index, along with crash severity and vehicle model year, women in the front passenger seat are 17% more likely to be killed.

Regulation may be needed to promote change

The problem isn’t just the lack of female crash dummies. It’s that all of the innovation in car safety depends on the findings of those crash tests. And testers won’t even put the only female dummy we have in the driver’s seat. So, there is no data at all on how cars perform with a woman in the driver’s seat. That means that all those great safety innovations assume a man’s weight and build.

Experts like biochemical engineers and anthropologists are actively working on figuring out how women’s bodies differ structurally from men’s. It’s not just that they tend to be shorter and lighter. Their bodies react differently in crashes.

The consequences of this are observable. There are, for example, two main systems meant to protect drivers from whiplash injuries. One, used by Volvo and Toyota, absorbs the energy of the crash in both the seat back and the head restraint. The other, used by most other manufacturers, relies solely on a moving head restraint. The first system reduces whiplash injuries for both men and women, and even proved to be slightly more effective for women. The second system offers no benefit at all to women.

Why aren’t auto safety testers interested in having an appropriate crash test dummy for women? Consumer Reports discussed the issue with industry experts, and they gave a variety of explanations. Some said there was no real need. Others said developing one would be expensive and time-consuming.

But safety advocates argue that the death and injury data is clear. Women drivers are getting hurt more often in the same circumstances as male drivers, even though they tend to take fewer risks.

Recently, a congresswoman from Florida wrote a letter NHTSA asking it to mandate an average female crash test dummy. She has also asked the agency to review the research and conduct its own studies on the subject. Safety advocates say that a new dummy could be created and put into service by 2030.

Cars should not be safer for some drivers than others, especially when the difference is gender-based. We applaud the industry for continuing to make improvements that increase auto safety, but we call on every car maker to ensure those improvements are evenly distributed.

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