Although automobiles are safer than they ever were, thanks to engineering innovations, women are far more likely to sustain fatal, serious and catastrophic injuries than men, when comparing the outcomes in collisions of equal severity. And, the primary reason for this is that auto safety tests have been almost exclusively carried out on crash test dummies that simulate the male physique, and automobile design and safety features have evolved based on the results of these tests.
CBC News reported on the results of a recent University of Virginia study that evaluated 22,854 head-on crashes that occurred from 1998 to 2015 and involved over 31,000 accident victims having a broad range of ages. The study looked at roughly an equal number of males and females, and all vehicle occupants were wearing seatbelts at the time of the collision.
Based on the U of V study, researchers concluded that females are 73 percent more likely to sustain fatal to serious injuries than males. And, this heightened risk for women exists despite the fact that, for vehicles made since 2009, the risk of serious to fatal injuries has actually dropped by 55 percent compared to older vehicles.
Researchers say the reason that today’s vehicles are less safe for women is due to the lack of female-specific regulatory tests and data analysis. The engineering of crash test dummies is complicated and requires a significant time to develop. Dummies are constructed to closely imitate the parts of the human body, such as a realistic, detailed neck assembly. And, up to 150 data points are build into the latest dummies so that researchers can measure the severity and type of injury that results on impact to a specific body part.
The complexity and delay in development means that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is still using dummies that were developed in the 1970’s (but weren’t ready to be used in crash test research until the 1990’s). And, the few so-called ‘female’ crash dummies that are in use are actually just a smaller version of the male design and they don’t incorporate the physical differences between females and males, such as bone alignment, muscle strength and fat distribution. (However, even men might wonder whether the results from crash tests can be directly applied to the typical North American male of varied ages when we consider that crash test dummies used in the United States are based on very fit military men from the 1960’s.)
The three-point seat belt is just one innovation whose design is based on testing ‘male’ crash dummies. And, although women have a more complicated chest physiology, no studies have been done to see how breast tissue affects the placement of seat belts or to determine potential seat belt design changes that could reduce injury for women.
Volvo appears to be the only car company that has addressed the inequality in automobile safety development. Volvo has collected and analyzed crash data for over 60 years, based on tens of thousands of real-life collisions, and Volvo promises to share their findings with all auto manufacturers at no cost. The company says they have used this data to develop cars that are safe for persons of both genders and with different body structures. One of Volvo’s innovations is whiplash protection technology, which was based on the discovery that women are at a higher risk of whiplash and chest injuries than men.
Today, women play the dominant role in most car-buying decisions in North America. So, why are automobile manufacturers continuing to get away with vehicle design and safety features that put women at a disadvantage?