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Is Gender Bias in Automobile Safety Costing Women’s Lives?

Car Accidents

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Fatality and injury data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that methods of functional safety design and testing among America’s automobiles is falling short of protecting the majority of the U.S. driving population: women.

The facts and figures paint a perilous picture for female motorists who not only are commuting to and from work but also are running errands for the family and dropping off their children at school, soccer practice and other activities.

“Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured in them,” states an article in The Guardian titled “The deadly truth about a world built for men – from stab vests to car crashes.” “But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to be moderately injured, even when researchers control for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. She is also 17% more likely to die. And it’s all to do with how the car is designed – and for whom.”

Such shoddy standards were brought to light in 2019 when The Guardian and other publications wrote about a Consumer Reports finding there is not – and never has been – a proper adult female crash-test dummy.

“Crash-test dummies were first introduced in the 1950s, and for decades they were based around the 50th-percentile male,” according to The Guardian. “The most commonly used dummy is 1.77m tall and weighs 76kg (significantly taller and heavier than an average woman); the dummy also has male muscle-mass proportions and a male spinal column. In the early 1980s, researchers based at Michigan University argued for the inclusion of a 50th-percentile female in regulatory tests, but this advice was ignored by manufacturers and regulators. It wasn’t until 2011 that the US started using a female crash-test dummy – although, as we’ll see, just how “female” these dummies are is questionable.”

Swedish traffic-safety researcher Astrid Linder famously encapsulated the problem in a white paper that called for the immediate development of an anthropometrically accurate female crash-test dummy.

“Currently, BioRID is the most biofidelic Anthropometric Test Device (ATD) for rear impacts and it represents an average male anthropometry…however, epidemiological data has shown that females have a higher risk for whiplash injury…,” the white paper states. “The results of this study could provide guidance for development of the future ATDs.”

Forbes contributor Tanya Mohn summed up the issue of inequity by concluding that over 45 years of unquestioned functional safety design and testing has resulted in “deadly consequences” for women.

“Now, a new report from Consumer Reports explores what it says road safety experts and researchers have known for decades: that women are more likely to be killed or injured in motor vehicle crash and that their bodies react differently from men’s, yet most dummies used in automotive crash tests in the United States were designed to represent an average man,” Mohn wrote in a story titled “Dummies Used In Motor Vehicle Crash Tests Favor Men And Put Women At Risk, New Report Says.” “The report discussed how safety progress relies on regulation, and automotive design is influenced by safety test results; if tests don’t prioritize female occupants, car makers won’t necessarily make changes to better protect them.”

Forbes contributor Steve Tengler described the growing anatomical awareness among the automobile industry as a second Me Too movement.

“Before questioning the need for such a revolt within functional safety design practices, it is worth examining NHTSA’s crash data: women are 73% more likely to suffer injury in a car crash, and 17% more likely to die than the average man,” Tengler writes in a story titled “How Buttigieg Might Start The #MeToo Movement In Automotive Safety Design,” referring to Pete Buttigieg, former presidential candidate and current transportation secretary. “The last and final question is likely what it will take for the situation to change. First and foremost, the certification requirements must adapt in all markets. As stated by Consumer Reports’ automotive safety engineer Ph.D, Emily Thomas, “The reality of progress in automotive safety is that it heavily relies on regulation. Unless the federal motor vehicle safety standards require dynamic crash testing with average-sized, female crash dummies in multiple seating positions…[the] automakers won’t make that leap themselves.”

Buttigieg is poised to present a new administration with the opportunity to reverse the gender bias.

“Because automotive design is directly influenced by the results of safety testing, any bias in the way cars are crash-tested translates into the way cars are manufactured,” Consumer Reports states in a documentation of its findings titled “The Crash Test Bias: How Male-Focused Testing Puts Female Drivers at Risk.” “So if safety tests don’t prioritize female occupants, carmakers won’t necessarily make changes to better protect them.”

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