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Vehicle Safety Design: When Cars are Designed with Men in Mind

A female driver is more likely to be killed or seriously injured than a male driver in the same type of collision. Vehicle safety design puts her at greater risk, a result of the way we evaluate vehicles.

When cars are crash tested by safety agencies, a male dummy sits behind the wheel. Auto manufacturers design for the “average” driver, a 69-inch tall man weighing 172 pounds, despite the fact that licensed female drivers outnumber men.

Here’s how we got here, what the future of vehicle safety design looks like and how to best pick the safest vehicle now if you’re car shopping.

How cars are tested

The first dummy was developed in 1949 to test fighter pilot ejection seats, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has used dummies to test vehicles since 1978. NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent organization, perform front, side and rollover crash tests with dummies registering acceptable injury levels. NHTSA is the federal agency responsible for enforcing vehicle standards; it determines the crash test criteria and conducts the tests with three types of dummies: a large male, an average male and a small female, which doubles as a child-size crash test dummy. Both NHTSA and IIHS declined interview requests.

Female crash test dummy

That small female dummy represents 5% of the female population, said Kathy Klinich, associate director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, noting in particular that it doesn’t account for differences in women’s hip or shoulder size or angles of the pelvis. “If you’re designing for the midsize male but there is an elderly female [driving], then that can result in rib fractures,” Klinich said.

The female dummy is also seldom used: Most manufacturers still produce cars based exclusively on data from male crash test dummies.

The problems with car design

But that might be changing. Earlier this year, luxury automaker Volvo released 40 years worth of its own research showing that women are more likely than men to be injured in a car accident due to physiological differences. Other research has drawn the same conclusion: women are 73% more likely to receive a serious-to-fatal injury in a car crash, according to a University of Virginia study. This is despite the fact that women are generally safer drivers than men who tend to engage in risky driving behavior such as speeding, not using seat belts or driving while under the influence of alcohol.

Common safety equipment benefits men over women:

  • Seat belts. The odds of a belt-restrained female driver sustaining severe injuries were 47% higher than a male driver’s, according to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
  • Head restraints. A 2018 study showed women are twice as likely to sustain whiplash injury in a car accident. Differently-designed head restraints could greatly benefit female drivers, according to a 2016 study.
  • Pedal positioning. A change in pedal positions instituted by automakers in 2005 appears to have helped women have significantly less risk for ankle and foot injuries. This injury risk for women is only 1.2 times more likely in cars that are model years 2005 and newer.
  • Leg positioning. Vehicle footwell design and instrument placement are still leading to more lower leg injuries for women, according to a 2016 study published in Accident Analysis Prevention.

What can be done about it?

Dummies are actually quite smart, expensive and time consuming to develop. The average or midsize male dummy THOR — Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint — has been constantly developed and improved upon since 1999.

But the future of car safety testing may lie in human computational modeling, Klinich said. Rather than incurring the costs of developing a physical dummy and doing an actual crash test, computational modeling allows vehicle safety design researchers to put a custom, virtual dummy through a virtual crash test.

Computational modeling vs. actual crash tests

The benefits of computational modeling are that a virtual dummy is highly customizable — everything from bone density to foot size can be changed — and much cheaper than a real crash test. Researchers are already using this tool not just to model accurate female dummies, but also to accurately model the standard measurements for people of different ethnicities. The public can access modeling data at humanshape.org to see the results of thousands of measurements on a wide variety of body types, shapes and ages.

The disadvantage is that there are differences between the virtual world and the real world. A vehicle deemed “safe” in a virtual model might not have the same score in an actual crash test. For now at least, auto manufacturers still have to pass government safety regulations with actual crash tests.

Creating a midsize female dummy

Because of this, Astrid Linder of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, winner of a 2015 international award for creating the first computational model and physical prototype of a midsize female dummy, advocates that midsize female crash test dummies should be produced and used.

The human cost of not developing a female dummy, not to mention insurance costs, might be higher than what it would take to develop one. Whiplash injuries account for 60% of the payout that insurance companies provide for permanent medical impairments. Though this number accounts for both men and women, drivers and non-drivers, female drivers have double the risk of this injury.

The future of vehicle safety design

Existing technologies could make it possible to customize a car’s airbags and seatbelts according to a driver’s height, weight or other factors:

  • Seat sensors could weigh a driver and/or passenger and react accordingly.
  • Automakers already offer “seat memory,” which recalls the favorite seat position of up to 3 drivers. This might also be programmed to remember other appropriate metrics of drivers.
  • Automakers already offer key-recognition technology, wherein the car has pre-set limits according to which key is used. This might also be programmed for optimal safety configuration according to the key and the driver.

Volvo is already changing its cars to take gender into account through its E.V.A. (Equal Vehicles for All) Initiative. Many of these features are currently available on the more expensive, upper trims of its vehicles — a new seat design reduces whiplash by half for women, while a new seatbelt design helps better protect pregnant women. Plus, its Side Impact Protection System (SIPS) reduces severe chest injuries by 50% for all passengers, no matter the gender.

The bottom line

Vehicle safety design has dropped the vehicular crash death rate by 60% since 1937. Everyone — men and women — has benefited from these advancements. The next advancements may come from computational modeling and customizable safety designs that change depending on who’s behind the wheel. But there are things all drivers can do to keep safe on the road right now:

  • Properly maintain your car. Make sure there aren’t any unresolved recalls and perform routine maintenance on time. There may even be some tasks you could do yourself.
  • Do your research. As we mentioned earlier, the NHTSA and IIHS crash tests cars. If you’re in the market for a new or used car, see how many stars it received from NHTSA or whether IIHS named it a Top Safety Pick.
  • Is your car a good fit? Though they are designed with older drivers in mind, AAA offers defensive driving classes and free 20-minute checkups to properly adjust your car for maximum comfort and safety.
 

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