WASHINGTON — Women get in fewer car accidents than men. But when they do, they’re up to 73% more likely to be injured and 28% more likely to die, according to new data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
One reason for that might be there is no crash test dummy that represents the average female body used in car safety testing, despite women making up more than half of all licensed U.S. drivers.
“It’s completely unacceptable,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “What we’re seeing in the studies that keep coming out is that the crash protection is not equal, and it should be.”
Advocates say that needs to change. They are renewing calls for federal regulators to advance studies of crash impacts on women and other groups that are poorly represented in safety testing after several reports have shown women are significantly more likely to be hurt in crashes.
More data — and updates to federal regulations — are necessary to help build better crash test dummies and models to increase vehicle safety, experts say.
Carla Bailo, CEO of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, said the reason there is no average-size female dummy can be traced back to “bad history.”
“It’s got to do with the fact that women didn’t drive for a long time, and once they started, it was assumed incorrectly that it was just short trips to store” and similar errands, she said.
Safety experts have known for decades that female and male bodies are impacted differently by car crashes. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t start using a female-style dummy until 2003. The dummies are put through simulated crashes to find out whether a vehicle meets federal vehicle safety standards and in determining the vehicle’s federal safety rating.
The dummy represents the 5th percentile of women in the 1970s, meaning 95% of women were larger than it. It is 4-foot-11 and clocks in at 108 pounds — slightly smaller, by today’s standards, than the average 12-year-old girl. The average American woman, meanwhile, now is just under 5-foot-4 and weighs around 171 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The male dummy, representing the 50th percentile of men in the 1970s, is the same height as the average man of today but is around 15% lighter. The female dummy is 8% shorter and 45% lighter.
The dummy also is not built like female bodies. Rather, it’s a scaled-down version of its male counterpart, despite women and men having different spinal alignment, muscle strength, responses to trauma and more, according to Stanford University researchers.
And the agency’s safety rating tests don’t include the female dummy in the driver’s seat for frontal crashes — the type that results in the most fatalities. Female dummies are in the driver’s seat for some side-impact crash tests and for frontal crashes in compliance testing, according to NHTSA.
It’s not just women: Elderly people, heavier people and pregnant people are also more likely to suffer severe injuries, according to the research compiled by Stanford.
“There’s no excuse any longer for anyone saying they were not aware that this gap existed,” Levine said. “It is a very bizarre argument that the 5th percentile female is good enough to represent the other 95% of the gender.”