Yet despite these discrepancies, car companies are only required to test vehicle safety using crash dummies modeled after the average man.
“We obviously know a lot of ways that men and women are different bio-mechanically. These differences… have the potential to change the ways that seatbelts interact with the body and with our underlying skeletal structures,” Jason Forman, a biomechanics researcher at the University of Virginia told CityLab’s Sarah Holder in 2019.
In addition to being, on average, smaller and lighter than men, women also have differences in muscle strength and in the shape of the torso, hips and pelvis. These differences all change how their bodies respond to crashes.
Currently, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tests how women respond to crashes, it uses just a scaled-down version of a male dummy. At 4-foot-11 and 108 pounds, it's roughly the size of a 12-year-old girl and represents the smallest five percent of women.
Now, Swedish researchers have created a crash dummy that better represents the female body, writes BBC News’ Shiona McCallum. Their dummy is 5-foot-3 and weighs about 137 pounds, per the publication. The team put emphasis on its chest shape and gave the female-modeled dummy a lower joint stiffness than its male counterpart. It’s equipped with sensors and transducers to measure the force exerted on each part of the body during a car crash.
Specifically, the team tests low severity rear impact collisions. In this kind of crash, women have a higher risk of whiplash than men do, engineer Astrid Linder, director of traffic safety at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute and leader of the research, tells NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. Linder's team monitors the dummy’s head and torso alignment, and they record factors such as the impact velocity, crushing force, braking rate and torque experienced by the body.
“We did test with different seats, and there we found that you could get quite different performances of the different seats depending on if it was the male or the female that were in these seats,” Linder tells NPR.
While car safety has advanced significantly over the past several decades, it “really hasn't taken into account the differences between a male and a female,” Christopher O'Connor, CEO of the crash test dummy manufacturing company Humanetics, says to BBC News. He tells the publication that sensors are needed to measure injuries in both men and women, which will lead to “safer cars with safer airbags, with safer seatbelts, with safer occupant compartments that allow for different sizes.”
Although Linder’s team has finally created and tested a crash dummy modeled after women, companies will not be required to use them unless new laws are put into place.
Last year, a team in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation to “improve the federal government’s vehicle safety testing practices, specifically those involving the use of crash test dummies,” per a statement.
“Women have achieved equality on the road when it comes to driving, but when it comes to safety testing to keep them safe while driving, they are nowhere near to achieving equality,” Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., said in the statement. “Crash test standards are so antiquated that we must update these standards now.”