The auto industry has made huge strides in the safety of automobiles in recent years, but one stubborn — and disturbing — problem has remained: women are twice as likely to die in car crashes as men. But recent weeks have brought another new innovation to the auto industry that may help address this problem, and it's incredibly simple — and astonishingly overdue.
Automakers are finally using female crash test dummies for the first time in 60 years of automobile testing.
First developed in late 2022, the SET 50F crash test dummy, designed by Swedish engineer Astrid Linder, is officially in use in car safety tests in Sweden, including by one of the country's iconic car brands Volvo.
Calls for a female crash test dummy have been circulating for years because the 60-year history of automobile safety testing has focused exclusively on male-modeled dummies. Even those meant to represent women and children were male dummies that had just been shrunk down to smaller sizes.
The need is so great that even Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proposed $20 million of funding to develop more female dummies in his proposed 2024 budget, much to the consternation of conservatives.
They've branded the request as yet another example of liberal overreach when it comes to sexuality and gender, despite the fact that the calls for female dummies have nothing whatsoever to do with this. Even remotely. Rather, it's about closing well-documented blind spots in automobile safety.
Women are injured and killed in auto accidents at far higher rates than men.
Conservative obsessions with gender aside, the need for female crash test dummies is real and dire. It aims to solve the truly staggering rates at which women are seriously injured and killed in accidents compared to men. According to a battery of safety studies compiled by Verity Now, a coalition seeking to improve automobile safety testing procedures, women are 73% more likely to be injured in a car crash than men.
They're far more likely to die as well. Between 17 and 18.5% more likely, depending on which study's figures you use, which amounts to some 1,300 preventable deaths every year. And these rates are thrown into even sharper relief when considering another shocking fact about car accidents — men are the drivers in 70% of fatal car accidents.
It's important to note that likelihood and the actual number of car crash deaths are two different things — more men overall die in car crashes each year than women, because they drive more miles on average than women, are more likely to engage in risky driving, and their crashes tend to be more severe. Even given those facts, however, women are proportionally far more likely to be injured or die than men.
Scientists think the lack of female crash test dummies is one reason for the discrepancies between male and female injury and death rates.
It's certainly not the only reason. Women also tend to drive smaller cars than men, and car crashes are more dangerous across the board in smaller cars. But many scientists and engineers, the aforementioned Linder among them, believe the discrepancy is also due to the lack of dummies. Much like how most medical research is conducted on male bodies, leading to major blind spots when it comes to women's health, all cars' safety features, from seatbelts to collision crumple zones, have been designed and tested with exclusively male-shaped bodies in mind until now.
At the outset of automobile testing in the 1960s, actual live men were used in safety tests (yes, seriously), in part because men were believed to be more likely than women to die in a crash. When dummies began to replace actual human beings in the 1970s (thank God), funding was allocated for the development of male dummies only, and the practice just stuck.
Today, we are still using the same male dummies created in 1976, which were based on a 5-foot-9-inch, 171-pound man — which doesn't even remotely account for all men, let alone women. But as Linder explained to NPR in 2022, the differences between male and female bodies are far more diverse than just height and weight.
"We have some geometrical differences between males and females, [and] we also have differences in joint stiffnesses. And females have less muscles and with a lower total strength, which correspond to a lower stiffness between the joints." This has major implications on how a body responds to the impact of a car crash, of course — women are far more likely to get whiplash than men, for example, in part because their neck muscles are weaker.
And when it comes to the seat a woman is sitting in when she gets whiplash, that too has been designed according to a male body. Linder and her colleague Tommy Petersson, a research engineer, hope that their new female crash test dummies will address this too. "The aim," Petersson told Agence France Presse, "is to make it possible to make better seats both for women and men."
John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.
This article originally appeared on YourTango