Crash Test Bias Puts Female Drivers at Risk

The raw data on car accident fatalities tells us that the majority of Americans killed in car crashes are men.  But this statistic masks a troubling and relatively unknown fact: when a car crash does occur, women are at significantly greater risk of injury or death.  In a study published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it was found that a female driver or front passenger who is wearing her seat belt is 17% more likely than a male to be killed in the event of a crash. A separate 2019 study published by the University of Virginia, it was found that female occupants are 73 percent more likely to suffer injury in a frontal impact collision than their male counterparts.  The UVA study controlled for age, height, BMI and vehicle model.

What accounts for the drastically different rates of injury and death between women and men in car accidents?  Things like bone density and skeletal structure might play a role.  However, experts offer another explanation involving the dummies used in crash tests that determine safety ratings.  

One might assume that crash test dummies were designed to represent some sort of composite, average human, but the reality is different.  When crash test dummies were initially standardized in the late 1970’s, they were modeled after the so-called “50th percentile male” – then, 171 pounds at a height of 5’9” (the average male’s weight has since increased by 21 pounds).  In 1996, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration added a “5th percentile female” dummy to its standardized crash tests, weighing in at just 105 pounds, after data emerged showing that females were more likely to suffer head injuries in side impact collisions.  Currently, a “5th percentile female” is utilized in one of the NHTSA’s side-impact tests and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety uses the same dummy as a driver and passenger for side-impact tests.  However, an average female crash test dummy simply does not exist.  As a result, auto manufacturers have had very little incentive to design their vehicles in a manner that optimizes safety for female bodies.  Such improvements simply won’t be reflected in a vehicle’s crash test rating and in some conceivable circumstances could even lower a vehicle’s rating.

Historically what we have seen when it comes to auto safety innovation is that major changes do not occur until they are mandated by federal legislation.  So, it’s unlikely we will see “average female” crash test dummies any time soon without significant pressure on lawmakers.  It’s a worthwhile endeavor, though, given we are dealing with a systemic problem that has the potential to disproportionately kill or cause injury to half the population.