50 percent of American drivers are ignored in car crash testing
An extensive study by Consumer Reports has concluded that just as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is biased toward airlines, the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is biased against women. These biases are not caused by purposeful actions. They are the result of bureaucratic inertia and years of testing discrimination.
These one-sided test results have resulted in a disproportionate number of females injured and killed in automobile accidents. Where male-specific crash dummies have been used for decades, no universal female crash dummies exist. And, if today, regulators decided to make changes to testing with female dummies it would take at least a decade to include females in test data.
Women are not smaller physiological versions of men
Though many think that men and women face the same dangers in automobile crashes, they are very different. The crash dummies used in car-crash testing have always been based on males. The current testing dummy is based on the 50th percentile of males in the population. The driver and passengers are currently represented in crash tests by a 171-pound, 5-foot-9-inch dummy that was first standardized in the 1970s (today, the average American man is about 26 pounds heavier).
An average adult female crash test dummy simply does not exist, despite the fact that women obviously drive to work, take road trips, and ride in cars with friends, and even though female bodies react differently from male bodies in crashes. That absence has set the course for four decades’ worth of car safety design, with deadly consequences.
A 2019 study from the University of Virginia (UVA) shows that for a female occupant, the odds of being injured in a frontal crash are 73 percent greater than the odds for a male occupant. That’s controlling for occupant age, height, and body mass index, in addition to collision severity and vehicle model year.
Right now, women crash dummies are not tested as drivers, even when 50 percent of drivers are women
The testing does not match with reality. The only way that experts see the system as changing is with government regulation. The only way that change will come is with changes in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) rules for testing. Only then will we see dynamic crash testing with average-sized female crash dummies in multiple seating positions, driver side included. The dummy industry and automakers will not make that leap themselves without government intervention.
Regulators asked for a female dummy in 1980, and a group of automakers petitioned for one in 1996, but it took until 2003 for NHTSA to put one in the car. Even then, it’s just a scaled-down version of a male dummy that represents only the smallest 5 percent of women by the standards of the mid-1970s — so small that it can work double-duty as a 12- or 13-year-old child. No dummy takes into account the biological differences between male and female bodies.
In frontal crash tests performed for both NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), this 5th percentile female dummy either rides as a passenger or doesn’t participate in the test at all. (The female dummy sits in the driver’s seat for some side-impact tests.) This continues, despite the fact that women now represent almost 50 percent of drivers in the U.S., according to the FHWA.
Change, unfortunately, takes time
- Creating a female crash dummy will take time — 20 to 30 years of bio-mechanical research and testing
- There are no real short-term solutions.
- Few female dummies are tested as drivers.
- Females are more likely to suffer head injuries on side impacts.
- Female bodies react differently from male bodies in crashes.
- Software programs are used to create the danger faced by women passengers and children.
- The airbag lesson showed the industry can move quickly on its own. The report noted, “In the late 1990s, … safety regulators and researchers took just two years to fix an airbag issue that was killing children and smaller women.”
According to Gillan, president emeritus of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, part of the reason for the swift action on airbags was a clear, perceptible harm.
“When all of a sudden you saw these people being injured by a safety technology that was supposed to save their lives, I think there was just so much public outcry,” she says. “You have all the elements coming together where you had a problem of children being injured, public opinion, congressional interest, and a legal system that was not going to let this continue. You had all the elements for action.”
By comparison, even though more than 10 thousand women were killed and over 1.4 million women were injured in car crashes in 2017, Gillan says that the issue of higher injury and fatality risks for women is difficult to publicize. That may explain why studies like Forman’s grab headlines every few years before fading away.
When safety regulations only deal with harm to 50 percent of the public, there is a problem
The Consumer Reports study notes, “If regulators do decide to make a change, Astrid Linder, Ph.D., a professor at Chalmers University in Sweden and the research director of traffic safety at the Swedish National Road and Transport Institute, estimates that we could have an average female crash test dummy included in official crash tests by 2030, assuming it would take between two and three years to formulate a new regulation and about five years to change test protocol.”
It is time that Congress takes action. Forty years of bureaucratic inaction is enough.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past ten years with Congress, the Department of Transportation and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.