Female crash dummies need to be updated for accuracy, Rep. Lawrence tells feds

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, sent a letter Tuesday signed by 65 other House members urging the Department of Transportation to update safety standards to require the use of accurate female crash test dummies. 

There is no crash test dummy that represents the average female body used in car safety testing, despite women making up more than half of all licensed U.S. drivers.

Experts say that may contribute to a disparity in crash outcomes: Women get in fewer car accidents than men. But when they do, they're up to 73% more likely to be injured and 28% more likely to die, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence is among more than 60 lawmakers urging the Department of Transportation to require the use of more accurate female crash test dummies.

"We write to call your attention to an often-overlooked inequity in the area of vehicle safety: the gender-based discrepancies in traffic injuries and fatalities that are in part attributable to the absence of female crash test dummies in the current crash test system," the members wrote in the letter.

They urged Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to require the use of up-to-date male and female crash test dummies in the New Car Assessment Program, which tests and rates new vehicles for safety, and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, regulations for the design and construction of new cars.  

"These policies would advance gender equity in auto safety regulations and save lives," they wrote. 

Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Waterford Township, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, also signed the letter. 

Safety experts have known for decades that female and male bodies are impacted differently by car crashes. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn't start using a female-style dummy until 2003. The dummies are put through simulated crashes to find out whether a vehicle meets federal vehicle safety standards and in determining the vehicle's federal safety rating.

The dummy represents the 5th percentile of women in the 1970s, meaning 95% of women were larger than it. It is 4-foot-11 and clocks in at 108 pounds — slightly smaller, by today's standards, than the average 12-year-old girl. The average American woman, meanwhile, now is just under 5-foot-4 and weighs around 171 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The male dummy, representing the 50th percentile of men in the 1970s, is the same height as the average man of today but is around 15% lighter. The female dummy is 8% shorter and 45% lighter.

The female dummy also is not built like female bodies. Rather, it's a scaled-down version of its male counterpart, despite women and men having different spinal alignment, muscle strength, responses to trauma and more, according to Stanford University researchers.

The lawmakers also urged the Transportation Department to use up-to-date dummies in both the driver and passenger seat tests. 

The agency's safety rating tests don't include the female dummy in the driver's seat for frontal crashes — the type that results in the most fatalities. Female dummies are currently used in the driver's seat for some side-impact crash tests and for frontal crashes in compliance testing, according to NHTSA.

rbeggin@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @rbeggin