The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Women are more likely to die or be injured in car crashes. There’s a simple reason why.

Crash test dummies, like these from GM in 2010, are male. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Susan Molinari, a Republican from New York, served in the U.S. House from 1990 to 1997. Beth Brooke is the former global vice chair of public policy at EY, a multinational professional services firm.

We live in a world designed for men. The top shelves in many supermarkets are too high for many women to reach. Many cellphones are too big for an average woman’s hand. And because women’s bodies have a lower metabolic resting rate than men’s, the typical office is about five degrees too cold for women.

Over the years, we have learned to live with these inconveniences. We bring a sweater to the office or stick a knob on the back of our phones to make them easier to hold. But in some instances, unequal design costs lives.

For example, more than 40,000 Americans are projected to die in automobile crashes this year — a “crisis,” according to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Importantly, those deaths are not suffered equally. While men are more likely to cause crashes, women are more likely to die in them. When compared with a male crash victim a woman is 17 percent more likely to die, according to a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and 73 percent more likely to be seriously injured in a vehicle crash, according to a 2019 University of Virginia study.

Why? All the crash test dummies are male. Even the “female” dummies the government requires in tests are just smaller versions of male dummies. As a result, many cars are not primarily designed to keep women safe.

This must change. But so far, the government has refused to make it happen.

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When the crash test dummy was first standardized in the mid-1970s, its proportions were based on an average-size man. But women’s and men’s bodies are different. Women have different bone density, and our abdomens occupy a different position in most car seats than men’s do. As a result, women are more likely to sit closer to the steering wheel and suffer from severe whiplash in an accident.

We’ve known this for years — and we also know how to make cars safer. Over the past few decades, crash test dummy technology has evolved to the point where a new generation of dummies can better replicate men’s and women’s unique physiology. Advanced female dummies have more sensors in the abdomen and pelvis to measure impacts with seat belts, more facial sensors to provide information about how and when air bags should inflate, and more ways to measure impact against the chest to reduce risk of rib fracture. The data provided by advanced female dummies could inform adjustments to car design at the seat belts, headrests, air bags, pedals and more.

And yet, the voluntary program administered by NHTSA to provide vehicle safety ratings for consumers still only requires that male dummies be tested in the driver seat in several of its key crash tests. As a result, a five-star safety rating for a car or truck means it was highly rated for a 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound man.

We have much less information on how safe a car might be for a 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound woman.

It makes no sense. And until the standard changes, more than half the population will continue to pay the price.

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NHTSA — the unit of the Department of Transportation charged with auto safety — already has the authority to require car manufacturers to use the most up-to-date crash test dummies available, including those that represent females. And NHTSA can require both male and female dummies to be tested in the driver’s seat. This problem could be fixed right now, and the solution would increase the cost of a new vehicle for a car buyer by less than a dollar.

Federal regulators have known for decades about the additional risk female drivers face. But while it has been researching and testing a female dummy for almost 15 years, the agency inexplicably continues to insist that more research is needed before it can make a decision. The longer it waits, the more women are injured or killed on the road.

The government should also require vehicle crash testing standards to be updated on a regular basis to make it easier to take advantage of new technology. Diversifying the dummy pool would force carmakers to adjust their designs to benefit the people who do most of the driving and car-buying in this country — preventing injuries and saving lives.

We can’t bring back the thousands of women we’ve lost in traffic accidents over the years or erase the pain of millions more who were injured. But we can make cars safer right now — and prevent our daughters and granddaughters from suffering the same fate. There isn’t a battle more worth fighting.