Are car safety tests failing women? Lack of representation in crash test dummies highlighted

Detail of a simulated car accident. Crash test dummy.

Thanks to modern crash testing and research, our cars have become much safer for everyone. Whether we’re on family road trips or our daily commute, we’ve come to expect that our care will always protect us.

To gain an understanding of the multiple ways in which collisions impact drivers and passengers of a vehicle, crash dummies have been used by scientists and engineers for many decades.

Serving as the role of driver and passenger, crash dummies are strapped into car seats and launched at speeds designed to measure the effect and the impact of real-life crash situations and highlight potential injury.

Given that all new cars are given safety ratings by the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP), these tests provide essential information to prospective car buyers about how safe a car is for the driver and passengers.

However, do those ratings apply to all car occupants equally? Perhaps not.

The most commonly used crash dummy has the same dimensions as an average male from the 1970s.

But how does this matter? Surely the human body is sufficiently similar, whether male or female, to not affect the outcome of safety tests?

To suggest that women are scaled-down men would be incorrect to assume due to the fact that women have different physical characteristics, such as height, weight, bone density, and muscle mass.

Because cars are trialled and tested using a dummy of an average male, the results from these tests do not accurately predict the safety risks for female occupants in a crash. 

According to research, women are 73 per cent more likely to be severely injured or die in a frontal crash than men and three times as likely to experience whiplash injuries.

The risk of injury can also be increased by the seating position. Women tend to sit closer to the steering wheel due to the fact that they’re shorter, which makes them more vulnerable to lower-body injuries involving the legs, spine, and abdomen.

Women are certainly more at risk than men in car accidents, even though they use seatbelts more frequently than men do in fatal incidents, have a lower mean BMI, and drive newer cars.

The EuroNCAP safety ratings are derived from a series of vehicle tests that are intended to simulate significant real-life crash scenarios that could cause car occupants or other road users to sustain injuries or die.

Male dummy from the 1970s

All of the different crash test dummies that are used to represent drivers are based on the size and stature of an average adult male, except the Hybrid III dummy, which represents a small female adult occupant.

However, this dummy, which has only been in use since 2015, is essentially a modified version of the male dummy, which has been in use since the 1970s.

In actuality, it fails to account for aspects of female anatomy such as torso shape and form, muscle mass, spinal alignment, and body part mass distribution. It therefore does not reflect many of the physiological differences between men and women, which could potentially change the impact certain crash scenarios impose on women.

The results of EuroNCAP’s crash tests not only provide consumers with unbiased data regarding a car’s safety, but they also have an impact on how automakers develop new models.

While there is no updated representation of an average female used in car safety tests, women will miss out on the increased protection that could be afforded by changes to the overall design of a car.

And it’s not just women who are missing out.

Obese and elderly drivers have high death rates per vehicle mile driven, and studies have shown that they are more likely than “standard” males to sustain more injuries in incidents of comparable severity.

Changes on the horizon

There are changes coming as Swedish engineer Astrid Linder and her team at the Sweden National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) are working to address this disparity. They are doing this by developing the first crash-test dummy prototype modeled on an average-size woman.

Their dummy weighs about 62 kg, measures 162 cm in height, and reflects geometrical differences between males and females, including lower stiffness between the joints and less muscle.

Without models that reflect the female portion of the population, manufacturers cannot adequately protect the entire population because, at this time, engineers lack the data necessary to create automobiles that are as safe as possible.

There are gaps in the current knowledge of the risks presented to each occupant group. A more advanced and detailed female test dummy, the THOR-5F, is due to be adopted by EuroNCAP and will go far to providing a more complete picture of vehicle safety and increasing the level of protection for all passengers.

Safety testing must include drivers of all ages, from the elderly to the young, in order to comprehend the risks that are posed to each group.

The average male cannot be the default for all car users, so more diverse crash test dummies are needed to ensure star ratings identify which cars provide the best protection for the whole car-using population.

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