Male-focused crash tests put female drivers at risk, Consumer Reports says

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Male and female bodies behave differently in crashes, but female crash dummies are used only as passengers in many government and insurance frontal crash tests, according to a report by ConsumerReports.org.

A 2019 study from the University of Virginia — which controlled for occupants’ age, height, collision severity and vehicle model year — found female occupants are 73 percent more likely to be injured in a frontal crash than male occupants.

Another recent study from NHTSA, obtained by Consumer Reports, showed female drivers or front passengers wearing seat belts are 17 percent more likely than males to be killed in a crash.

The most standard “50th percentile” crash test dummy, which was standardized in the 1970s, represents a person who is 171 pounds and 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

“There is currently no physical crash test dummy that represents an average adult female anywhere in the world,” the report by Consumer Reports said.

A smaller 5th percentile female dummy used as a front and back passenger in some tests, Consumer Reports said, is “just a scaled-down version of a male dummy that represents only the smallest 5 percent of women by the standards of the mid-70s.”

“The reality of progress in automotive safety is that it heavily relies on regulation,” said Emily Thomas, automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “Unless the federal motor vehicle safety standards require dynamic crash testing with average-sized female crash dummies in multiple seating positions, driver side included, the dummy industry and automakers won’t make that leap themselves.”

NHTSA told Automotive News in an emailed statement that its New Car Assessment Program places the 50th percentile male dummy in the drivers seat and the 5th percentile female dummy in the front passenger seat of full frontal crash tests. The 5th percentile dummy is placed in the driver’s seat for NCAP side-impact pole tests and is used in the driver’s and front passenger seats in belted and unbelted Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards frontal crash tests, the administration said.

Thomas said that to effectively restrain drivers in a crash, “across a range of body types, carmakers and crash testers need to consider not just the size of different occupants, but also the material properties of their bodies.”

“Females are not just smaller versions of males,” Kristy Arbogast, co-scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, told Consumer Reports. “They’re put together differently. Their material properties — their structure — is different.”

Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told Automotive News that 5th percentile dummies aren’t used in IIHS frontal tests and are always used in side impact tests, because women are “particularly vulnerable in side impact crashes because of their stature.”

“A female driver’s head, for example, is often in the middle of the side window instead of being protected by the center pillar like a man’s head would be,” Rader said. “The test was designed to drive improvements like larger side airbags to cover more of the side window to prevent a female’s head from sliding around or under the airbag during a side impact collision.”

“IIHS frontal tests put a major emphasis on the structural performance of the vehicle,” Rader added, “which means that if the structure holds up well, the seat belts and airbags should be able to do a good job protecting the driver regardless of the driver’s gender.”

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