Women and the elderly fail crash test dummies, according to the US Government Accountability Office. The GAO just released a new report on the subject and is concerned that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not done enough to fill the gaps in knowledge or research that would make our vehicles safer for these most vulnerable categories of occupants. Consequently, GAO recommends that NHTSA create a comprehensive plan to improve this false crash test data.
There is no doubt that cars today are safer than they were two decades ago. In addition to the crash tests required by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FVMSS), programs such as NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Picks make their test results public, which has forced manufacturers to improve occupant protection to get those all-important safety scores, and now cars must be designed to handle rollover crashes, side crashes and rollovers, as well as frontal crashes.
But the benefits of improved safety in the car have been seen mostly by men.
The Hybrid III (M) is the most commonly used crash test dummy and dates from 1986. It represents an adult male 50th percentile and is 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) tall and weighs 171 lb (78 kg). NHTSA began including female crash test dummies only at the turn of the century, amending the FVMSS in 2000 to reflect this requirement. The Hybrid III female dummy represents a 5th percentile adult female at 4 ft 11 in (1.5 m) tall and 108 lb (49 kg), but is a scaled version of the larger male dummy and does not reflect some of the physiological differences between males and women. The dummy also lacks sensors on its lower legs.
It is disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising, then, that women are at greater risk of death and injury during a car crash. In 2013, NHTSA found that during a crash, younger female front-row passengers were 17 percent more likely to die than male front-row passengers, and women were at greater risk of chest injuries (26 percent greater); on the neck. 45 percent larger), arms (58 percent larger) and legs (80 percent larger).
The situation has at least improved somewhat over time. In a 2022 follow-up study, NHTSA found that the differential risk between female and male front-row passengers improved from a 19.9% greater risk of death for 1960–1999 model year vehicles to 9.4% for 2000–2020 model year vehicles and to 2.9% when looking only at model year 2015–2020 vehicles.
The greater risk of injuries in female passengers may be partly due to physiological reasons, such as bone density and the geometry of bones and ligaments, but the report also notes that “the smaller stature of females relative to males may explain the increased risk of leg injuries, as shorter people may have to sit in a forward position in the seat travel, bringing their lower legs closer to the front of the vehicle.” (Some data suggest that car types that women drive may be smaller and lighter, and that women tend to be in the vehicles that are hit rather than hit in side and rear impacts.)
Age and weight also play a role. Older people are at greater risk of injury and death during traffic accidents. the 2013 study found that “a 75-year-old driver is about five times more likely to die than a 21-year-old in a similar crash.” Again, this effect partially improves in newer vehicles, particularly vehicles after 2009. The GAO report also notes that older passengers are more likely to be injured in the rear seat, but that front crash tests do not require a rear seat dummy. Heavier people do worse in accidents, especially heavier women compared to heavier men.
But the Hybrid III crash test dummy uses only one chest sensor, which may not accurately reflect all the forces experienced by elderly occupants during a crash. As a dummy for the 50th percentile, it does not accurately represent individuals with a high body mass index. A 95th percentile dummy exists but is not used in either the FVMSS or NCAP crash tests, despite the fact that 42 percent of the US population is considered obese, according to the GAO report. (The report also notes that the 95th percentile dummy is not obese, so it may not even accurately simulate passengers with higher BMIs.)
Similarly, child-sized mannequins do not accurately reflect the physiological differences between children and adults, and their smaller size means a lack of space for instruments.
More advanced technical dummies with higher life expectancy (called THOR) have been developed for some time and are even used in the European version of NCAP, but NHTSA has yet to finalize a rule requiring their use in the US.
To remedy this situation, NHTSA should develop a plan to address the various limitations of mock crash tests, the GAO says, a recommendation NHTSA agreed with.