The key difference: Starting with 2011 models, the federal government replaced an average-size male dummy with a smaller female dummy for some tests. When the 2011 Sienna was slammed into a barrier at 35 mph, the female dummy in the front passenger seat registered a 20 to 40 percent risk of being killed or seriously injured, according to the test data. The average for that class of vehicle is 15 percent.
“When we’re out and about as a family, I’m the one sitting in that seat,” said Milito, of Alexandria, after learning of the test results.
And she doesn’t know how the female dummy would fare behind the wheel, where she spends most of her car time commuting and ferrying kids. The star-rating system’s frontal crash test uses only the male dummy in the driver’s seat.
Consumer advocates say the female dummy’s subpar performance in some top-selling vehicles reveals a need to better study women and smaller people in collisions. Until recently, only male dummies were used during more than three decades of government testing aimed at helping car buyers choose between vehicles. The female dummy also mimics a 12-year-old child.
In general, experts say, the smaller the person, the fewer crash forces the body can tolerate. When cars wrap around trees or utility poles, for example, smaller drivers and passengers suffer more head, abdominal and pelvic injuries but fewer chest injuries than average-size people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Women’s less-muscular necks also make them more susceptible to whiplash, researchers say.
A 2011 study by the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics found that seat-belted female drivers in actual crashes had a 47 percent higher chance of serious injuries than belted male drivers in comparable collisions. For moderate injuries, that difference rose to 71 percent.
Auto safety watchdog groups say they’ve been pushing NHTSA to go beyond the average-sized male dummy since the agency launched the star-rating system in 1978. They say those tests should take into account not only women but the increasing elderly and obese populations and larger children who have outgrown child safety seats. The tests, they say, also miss average women who fall between the 50th percentile male dummy, which stands 5-feet-9 and 172 pounds, and the unusually petite female dummy, which is 4-feet-11 and 108 pounds.
The average American man is 5-feet-9 and 195 pounds, and the average American woman is 5-feet-4 and 165 pounds, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.