What do crash test dummies have to do with gender bias?
We've heard many arguments today about how gender bias in road safety is costing women their health. Specifically, bias in how we test vehicles for crash worthiness. But what does this mean? What does gender bias have to do with road safety and crash testing? Safety is a universal theme for the wellbeing of all human beings after all. How could bias even be equated with the safe travel on our roads?
To start, you have to look closely at the history of vehicle crash testing and how today’s test dummies (Anthropomorphic Test Devices for the mouthful) came into being. It’s a extended journey starting with the gender roles of our past society and the social norms of a bygone era. Women apparently weren’t in the driver’s seat of many motor vehicles 100, 70, or even 60 years ago. And they certainly weren’t flying many military aircraft either in those days. But that’s were test dummies were first conceived – in aeronautics to test the safety of planes, their ejection systems, and pilots’ parachutes. Later on, they were commandeered for service during the infancy of road vehicle safety which really didn’t gain regulatory steam until activist Ralph Nader proclaimed our automobiles were ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ in 1965.
So, with the social norm of the male driver ingrained, automotive test dummies were engineered with the mechanics and anthropometry of men. In fact, much of the data used to model early ATDs was collected from military surveys of enlistees, which of course at the time, were majority male. And there you have it in a nutshell– crash test dummies solely produced based on the physical characteristics of men.
Fast forward to today. What’s changed? To understand what the real problem is, we must acknowledge a basic tenant that men and women are physiologically different. Biology has documented many points of diversion between the male and female form. Certain musculature is different, our bone structures aren’t the same, especially in the pelvis, and average statures and biometrics differ as well.
Many who have researched this topic of male inspired crash test dummies will notice that, yes there are current female crash test dummies being used today. So, what’s the gender problem again? Unfortunately, the only traits taken into consideration when creating our current female crash test dummies like the Hybrid III 5th female and the SIDIIs side impact female (consequently these designs are also decades old) primarily focused on just the height and weight of the small female stature. This means that they scaled the design anthropometry of the existing male dummies down to a smaller female size without taking into consideration that the female form is actually much different than that of a male. Enter gender bias in the crash testing and safety design of our road vehicles.
So, if we now agree that our current staple of female crash test dummies is not representative of the unique physiology of women, we need to consider what risks are characteristic for women and design test dummies around that criterion. Fortunately, the data exists. We know that in 2013 NHTSA found that female drivers and right front passengers wearing their seat belts are 17% to 18.5% more likely than their male counterparts to be killed in a crash. We know that women typically have shorter legs and sit closer to the steering wheel to reach the pedals, which make them almost 80% more likely than men to suffer severe leg injuries. A 2019 study from the University of Virginia found that women are 73 percent more likely to be severely injured or die in a frontal crash than men. And more recently, IIHS concluded that women were 3 times as likely to experience injuries such as a broken bones or concussions and twice as likely to suffer collapsed lungs or suffer traumatic brain injury.
Research and development is certainly important in discovering new ways to protect women in automobiles, but regulation is key to getting the industry on-board and consistent.
Armed with this awareness and knowledge, what are our next steps? Research and development is certainly important in discovering new ways to protect women in automobiles, but regulation is key to getting the industry on-board and consistent. That regulation also needs the correct tools to do this evaluation. We need test devices that are not adaptations of a male device. We also need a more sophisticated ATD for assessing whole-body trauma in a variety of occupant restraint environments.
Taking a first step is always critical, and that gateway should be a test device already available today - the THOR-5F advanced female frontal impact dummy. She’s designed from actual female anthropometry data, which means she has a female form, not that of her male counterpart. Her technology is the most advanced ever produced, derived from the THOR architecture of advanced human mechanics. Plus, she has 150 sensor channels that are designed to help address those parts of the body where women have increased vulnerability to injury. All solid reasons to put her to work today!
Evening out the odds for female protection in automotive crashes mean that the death of up to 1,342 mothers, daughters, spouses, and loved ones could be prevented in one year alone. Using National Safety Council (NSC) estimates, these preventable tragedies translate to an economic cost of over $2 billion in 2018. The non-economic costs are immeasurable.
 Kahane, C. J. “Injury vulnerability and effectiveness of occupant protection technologies for older occupants and women.”(Report No. DOT HS 811 766). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, May 2013.
 “Cost of auto crashes & statistics.” Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association (RMIIA), 2015. www.rmiia.org/auto/traffic_safety/Cost_of_crashes.asp.
 Forman, Jason, Gerald S. Poplin, C. Greg Shaw, Timothy L. McMurry, Kristin Schmidt, Joseph Ash, and Cecilia Sunnevang. “Automobile injury trends in the contemporary fleet: Belted occupants in frontal collisions.” Traffic Injury Prevention, 20:6, 607-612. 2019. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/15389588.2019.1630825?needA…
 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Vehicle choice, crash differences help explain greater injury risks for women” February 11, 2021. https://www.iihs.org/news/detail/vehicle-choice-crash-differences-help-….
 National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. “Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).” Accessed March 2020. https://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx.