INDIANAPOLIS – When Hoosiers head out to buy a car, they often consider safety a priority. But little do many people know, crash test ratings do not take the average-sized female into account. 

“When cars first started coming out, the culture at that time was that you had primarily male drivers,” Emily A. Thomas, PhD, the auto safety manager at Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, explained. “It was mostly the men that were doing the driving, it was mostly the man in the vehicle and so the entire safety program was built around the culture at that time. Mind you, this was back in the 70s.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirm the main dummy they use during crash tests today is the average-sized man from 1970. The dummy represents a male who is 5’9” and 170 pounds.  

“When the dummy was developed, that was about the size of the 50th percentile male meaning 50 percent of the population was larger and half was smaller,” Jessica Jermakian, the vice president of vehicle research at IIHS, said.

Today, the CDC claims the average-sized male is the same height, 5’9”, but more than 20 pounds heavier at 197 pounds.

Neither the NHTSA or IIHS uses the female crash test dummy in frontal-impact crashes. Since 2003, the NHTSA has used a small female dummy during compliance testing. The so-called “5th percentile female” is similar to someone who is 4’11” and 108 pounds and approximate size to someone who is about 12 years old.

“And if you know any women in your life, you know that they are not just scaled-down men, Thomas said. “That’s not the reality of our bodies.”

What can be done to make women safer in the car?

Automotive engineers, former congressional members and groups like the Verity Now Coalition are calling on the US government to make changes. At least 60 people signed and sent a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, asking that the federal government require organizations to use an average-sized female dummy.

“Obviously, our necks are different, we have much less muscle, most of us sit closer to the steering wheel,” Susan Molinari, the co-chair of Verity Now, said. “It’s a lack of acknowledgement that women’s lives are just as important.”

As of March 2022, Molinari said Buttigieg had yet to respond.

“It’s disturbing,” she said.

Those at Consumer Reports agree, there needs to be more research on this topic.

“Women do benefit from the safety advancements we see in cars today,” Thomas said. “However, we are at the point where we can really fine tune those safety benefits so that women are at an even greater advantage to benefit even more from them because it’s actually tuned toward their bodies instead of right now, just being tuned toward men and sort of catching other people under the umbrella.”

NHTSA confirmed it never uses its 5th percentile female dummy in any of its frontal crash tests when determining vehicle safety for its 5-Star Safety Ratings program. It does, however, perform crash tests with the 5th percentile female dummy in its compliance testing program.

NHTSA wouldn’t do an on-camera interview, but sent CBS4 the following statement:

“Safety is the top priority for the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA, and equity in safety is central to our mission for all drivers and occupants. The agency uses both the 50th percentile male and 5th percentile female crash test dummies in both the compliance and consumer information programs to ensure that vehicle manufacturers design and produce vehicles for crash protection for a wide range of occupant sizes and for targeted occupants at risk when involved in a crash. 

Recent data on vehicles that were designed after NHTSA adopted use of the 5th percentile adult female test dummies in our vehicle standards and the Five-Star Safety Ratings (New Car Assessment Program) help confirm that there has been a significant reduction in the difference observed in fatality risk between male and female occupants including in comparable crashes. The data indicates that current regulations and NCAP have improved safety for all vehicle occupants and appear to have also significantly reduced gender disparity in crash outcomes.  NHTSA continues to examine data to evaluate remaining gender disparities in fatality and injury outcomes and to determine how to eliminate them. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will allow NHTSA to accelerate research to evaluate remaining gender disparities in fatality and injury outcomes and determine how to eliminate them.”

Understanding the crash test data

Data from the IIHS, though, paints a different story.

“Women are more likely to be killed in crashes than men and more likely to get injured in crashes,” Jermakian said.

Female drivers and right front passengers are approximately

17% more likely

to be killed

in a car crash than a male occupant of the same age

Any seatbelt-wearing female occupant has

73% greater odds of being

seriously injured

in a frontal car crash than the odds of a seatbelt-wearing male occupant being injured in the same kind and severity of crash

“When we compare very similar crashes between men and women and we look at the more serious injuries that we’re assessing in our crash test program like head injuries and injuries to the torso, we see that men and women are actually at similar risk of injury,” Jermakian explained. “Where we see that increase risk of injury for women is in the extremities, like in the arms and legs and particularly in the legs and feet. So, that’s an area for further study and one that is on our research agenda moving forward.”

Jermakian said IIHS wants to better understand why women are at an increased risk of leg and feet injuries and what the organization can do in their crash test programs to help prevent that.

IIHS said the crash test dummies it has currently cost about $250,000.

Verity Now questions why it and NHTSA haven’t purchased the new “THOR” dummy from Humanetics.

“It’s out there! Europe is using it,” Molinari pointed out.

According to Humanetics’ website, the Thor-5F’s neck, chest, pelvic bone and abdomen better represent that of a female.

The company also offers dummies that represent the elderly and obese, who are reportedly 76% and 79% more likely to suffer injury in a car crash respectively.

Jermakian said the new dummies cost upward of a million dollars.

Federal lawmakers are noticing the disparities. In 2021, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) announced she wanted to introduce a bill that would require crash test dummies be modeled after both the male and female bodies. Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida) also introduced the Fair Crash Tests Act. He said he wanted the Comptroller General of the US to conduct a study to see if NHTSA should make changes to its crash test dummies. Neither Norton nor Bilirakis responded to our requests for comment.

CBS4 also reached out to several car manufacturers asking how they’re designing cars and making sure they’re safe for adult female drivers. Representatives from General Motors, Hyundai and Kia did not respond to our requests for information. Toyota referred us to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. It ended up providing this statement:

“Automotive safety is the industry’s top priority and automakers rely on accurate, repeatable anthropomorphic test devices (ATDs), known commonly as crash test dummies, to support crashworthiness safety development and compliance.

“Every day, vehicles are getting more advanced with new safety enhancements. Last year, Auto Innovators released recommendations for the New Car Assessment Program entitled the ‘Plan to Advance Safety at the Speed of Innovation,’ which include an expanded focus that includes both crashworthiness and crash avoidance.”

Auto Innovators President and CEO John Bozzella

Honda responded with this email:

“Honda is a global automaker with R&D facilities around the world, several of which utilize crash test dummies. We do have a large R&D facility in Raymond, Ohio, where we conduct safety research, including use of crash dummies.  While that facility is significant, we also develop vehicles sold in the US in Japan, where there is yet another safety research facility.  Thus, providing a specific number of dummies globally might be tricky and may not be relevant to your inquiry.  I could just focus on the Ohio center, where we have a significant number of dummies.  You can find a video about that dummy lab here:  https://hondanews.com/en-US/safety?modal=video-37608fb76eaa9e3e3e588b6f5d00c068.  You’ll see in that video that we have dummies of all sizes, including those that would resemble modern-day female forms, and Honda goes beyond regulatory requirements in our testing.  In fact, this video may address most of your questions in one way or another.”

The NHTSA is considering whether to change its 5-star automotive safety rating system.

So far, NHTSA has recommended updating four new driver-assistance technologies, including lane-keeping support, emergency breaking, blind spot detection and intervention.

The government agency is accepting public comment and just extended the deadline for that through June 8th.