The First Female Crash Test Dummy Is Here. Why the Delay?
Decades of male-focused car safety testing reveals how gender bias is entrenched in road safety regulations.
A team of Swedish engineers has finally developed a female crash test dummy, BBC News reported. This dummy has been designed to represent an average woman’s body, addressing the historical gender bias in car safety testing. However, for this female crash test dummy to make a difference in car safety for women, regulators will first have to institute it as part of its otherwise male-centric testing process.
“We know from injury statistics that if we look at low severity impacts females are at higher risk… So, in order to ensure that you identify the seats that have the best protection for both parts of the population, we definitely need to have the part of the population at highest risk represented,” Astrid Linder, who is leading the research team, told the BBC.
Decades of male-focused testing has cost women their lives. Over the years, a slew of reports have highlighted how women are at a higher risk of being killed or injured in car crashes. Despite evidence that women’s bodies react differently to car crashes than men’s, the standard dummy used in crash tests till date is one modeled on an average male body’s proportions.
While such statistics have been published time and again, there has been little to no progress on addressing these safety issues for women, despite women accounting for almost 50% of drivers in the US, Consumer Reports noted. In fact, regulators had asked for a female dummy in 1980, the report said. This was followed by an automakers’ petition in 1996, but it was only in 2003 that the NHTSA began using ‘female dummies’ — that too, a scaled-down version of a male dummy (to the size of a 12-year-old girl) that did not accurately represent physiological differences between male and female bodies and, moreover, represented only the smallest 5% of women at the time.
According to the BBC News report, ‘male’ dummies — modeled on an average man’s build and weight — have been used as a stand-in for all human bodies in car safety tests since the 1970s. To right this wrong, the team of Swedish engineers have created a dummy that measures 162 cm in height and weighs 62 kg, a more accurate representation of an average woman.
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The numbers are telling. A 2019 study by the University of Virginia found that seatbelt-wearing women were 73% more likely to suffer serious injuries in a frontal car crash as opposed to seatbelt-wearing men. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the US showed that a woman driver, or belted front passenger, is 17% more likely than a man to be killed in a car crash.
The researchers have focused on studying the dummy’s biomechanics in cases of low-impact rear collisions. When they tested the dummy with different seats, they found that male and female dummies produced different results. Linder, explained, “When you look at loading to the neck, you would look at how the head moves relative to the torso dynamically. So it’s a rear impact where you aim to have the head and the torso as much in line with each other as possible. And that is affected by how the body interact[s] with the seatback.”
Linder highlighted the importance of accounting for these differences to understand why women respond differently in a car crash. The new female dummy differs from its standard male counterpart not only in height and weight, but also in how it has been specifically designed for low severity rear impact, Linder told NPR. The dummy accounts for differences in strength, muscles, joint stiffness and also has a fully flexible spine that allows researchers to know how a car crash injury might impact the whole spine.
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Over the years, bias in road safety has filtered into car design too. Maria Weston Kuhn, who joined the U.N.’s Global Youth Coalition for Road Safety after a car crash, pointed out that the seatbelt “was designed to stop a man’s forward momentum by catching his rigid hip bones. For me, it didn’t. It slid above my hips, pinned my intestine against my spine and ruptured it.”
“You can’t have the same device to test a man and a woman. We’re not going to crack the injuries we are seeing today unless we put sensors there to measure those injuries,” Christopher O’Connor, CEO of US-based Humanetics — the largest manufacturer of crash test dummies — told the BBC.
Meanwhile, engineers are reportedly also working on designing more diverse dummies, such as for babies and the elderly. And while a female crash test dummy is a welcome development, regulators will need to enforce testing with it for this to translate into greater safety for women. “…I think many new vehicles do provide good safety for both men and women. So the trick here is to actually assess that. So then it would require that it says in the regulation that you should use a model both of an average male and an average female. And today, the regulation tells you that you should use a model of an average male, full stop,” Linder said.
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.