It’s more dangerous to be a woman in a car than a man.
Since the late 1960s, the effect of car accidents on the human body has been measured using male dummies only. These dummies are designed to mimic a man’s physique, which is why they don’t accurately demonstrate the effect of a crash on a woman’s body.
Globally more men die in vehicle crashes than women — that’s because a larger proportion of women don’t drive to work, especially in some countries. In fact, a report from the US Department of Transportation suggests that women are at a 17 percent higher risk of dying from a car crash. They are also 75 percent more prone to severe injuries during an accident but, unfortunately, nobody is talking about these facts.
A part of that could be traced to the dummies.
To address this problem and understand the real impact of vehicle accidents on a woman’s body, researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI) have developed the first adult female crash dummy. It is called the SET 50F (seat evaluation tool 50F).
“We see from statistics that men and women are at different risks from different types of crashes. The aim of the prototype dummy is to show that we can make models of the female population in the same way as we have, for a long time, made models of the male population,” Astrid Linder, an engineer who is leading the SET 50F team at VTI, told CNN.
The need for a female dummy
Most women have less muscle mass and body weight than men of their age. In fact, even if a man and a woman have equal body size, the skeletal size and bone mass will still typically be higher in the man.
“Women are generally lighter than men, so they are catapulted forward more quickly, and subject to greater acceleration,” Anna Carlsson, a researcher from Chalmers University, told the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.
This means that when a car crashes, due to their lighter bodies, women hit or fall on objects with greater force than men do. Moreover, since they have low bone and muscle mass, they are more likely to have severe fractures and injuries.
“Different types of injuries are more common for females than males. Females have more injuries to the spine and to the hips, which makes perfect sense because, females have broader hips and wider pelvises, and they sit closer to the steering wheel to get to the steering wheel and to the pedals,” Linder added.
What makes the situation worse is that car manufacturers design their vehicles only to pass the crash tests that are safe for a male dummy which represents the average male passenger. They never check whether or not their vehicle is equally safe for the female driver or passenger.
However, it is not entirely their mistake, the regulators in the EU, US, and other parts of the world have only approved standard male dummies (equivalent to a man weighing 171 pounds and measuring 5 foot 9 inches in height) for crash tests.
Regulation? What regulation
No regulatory standard exists to check whether or not a car’s design and build quality ensure safety for women. The regulators in the US did approve a female dummy, Hybrid III 5F, but it was to test the impact of accidents on 12-year-old passengers, representing only five percent of the US female population.
In the last 50 years of crash testing, no one ever thought that there should also be a standard female dummy. This is mainly why the currently sold cars are not fully comfortable and safe for women.
“We expect women and men to use the transport system and so on, so both parts of the population should be represented in the assessment of car safety,” Linder said.
When asked about some of the obvious improvements that car manufacturers can make so that vehicles are more suited to a woman’s physique, Carlsson explained:
“The seats should be less stiff, more pliant. When a car is hit from behind, the seat back acts like a trampoline and catapults us forward. I’d like to see seat backs that are better cushioned, made a little softer.”
SET 50F can make a big difference
The female crash dummy from VTI was modeled using data from HumanShape, a large online database of 3D human body shapes.
The prototype has been tested in Sweden since late 2022. It’s made of rubber, metal and plastic, and is fitted with 24 sensors. It measures 162 centimeters (5 feet 3 inches) tall and weighs 62 kilograms (137 pounds). That is 15 cm and 15 kg fewer than a male crash test dummy. The shoulders are also narrower and the hips wider — all of which can have an impact on car accidents.
“For non-fatal injuries which can lead to disabilities, statistics show that the factor that always stands out is the difference between men and women,” Linder told AFP. “The resulting suffering can last a lifetime. It is essential to establish how everyone can be protected.”
The researchers created different types of models on a computer, ran simulations to find the most relevant female dummy configuration, and then conducted hundreds of virtual car crash tests to arrive at the final design of the SET 50F prototype.
The next step was to do physical tests on the design.
“We use these prototypes when assessing the vehicle seats by putting the seat on a sled and then pushing it with a certain acceleration. We measure the acceleration and use sensors to follow the motion of the head and the torso and see what happens to the neck,” Linder said.
The results suggest that SET 50F can be used to assess the safety of any average adult female who is about 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs around 137 pounds, during a “low-severity rear impact” car crash.
“Our hope is the project will be used widely by the community and that we, in the near future, will have a situation where the safety of vehicles will be assessed equally for both parts of the population. But it has to start with the regulation. When you close that gap, then there will be momentum to move forward,” Linder added.
You can read more about SET 50F here.