Crash test bias: Female drivers at risk

Crash test dummies: You know them from the iconic public service announcements.

Over the years they’ve contributed to making cars safer for everyone. But a revealing new Consumer Reports investigation took a look at how these test dummies are designed, and why a troubling flaw could result in potentially deadly consequences.

You might think that crash test dummies represent a wide range of drivers.

But despite their blank faces and androgynous features, most dummies used in auto crash tests represent a very specific type of driver—an average adult male—which researchers say poses a safety risk for women.

There are no crash test dummies that represent the average female in the U.S., and that’s despite the fact that women are nearly half the drivers and more than half the population.

Results from safety crash tests have a direct impact on how cars are designed to make them safer. But if safety tests prioritize adult men, what does that mean for women?

A recent study from the University of Virginia revealed that a seat-belt-wearing woman is 73% more likely to be seriously injured in a frontal car crash than a man.

This has been a clear problem since at least the 1980s, when the regulators first asked for there to be dummies representing women. What they got was a scaled-down version of a male dummy that today is so small it represents a young teenager.

Automakers disagree that a change would help. The Auto Alliance, a trade group, told Consumer Reports it doesn’t believe a female dummy would be useful because the current American female is closer in height and weight to male dummies currently used for testing.

But Consumer Reports says carmakers and crash testers need to consider much more than just the size of dummies. It’s not enough to take a male dummy and scale it down.

There are important physiological differences between men and women that cause them to react differently during a car crash. That’s why it’s important to account for these biomechanical and material differences when designing dummies.

Government agencies are evaluating a new set of dummies, called THOR. They have been in development since the 1980s and might be used in European crash tests as soon as 2020.

They’ll be able to collect more data than the current model. But there are currently no plans for an average female THOR dummy.

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