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Average crash-test dummy is a specific man. That's a problem for women's safety

Consumer Reports says in addition to being smaller than an average female, the dummy used to represent women doesn't account for biological differences.

Most vehicle crash safety tests use a dummy that's based on a very specific male body type and there is no crash-test dummy used anywhere in the world that is designed to replicate an average woman's height, weight and biology, according to Consumer Reports. That can lead to potentially deadly consequences for women when it comes to car safety design.

According to CR, auto safety policy and research are designed to address the body of the "50th percentile male." That is represented by a dummy which is 5-feet 9-inches tall and 171 pounds. That dummy was instituted in 1970 and is still used even though today's average American man is about 27 pounds heavier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After decades of prodding by regulators and automakers for a female dummy, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration created one in 2003. This represented about 5% of women based on its body type -- 4-feet 11-inches tall and 108 pounds. It is so small that it also doubles as a dummy for a 12- or 13-year-old child, according to CR. The CDC says the average woman today is 5-feet 3-inches tall and 170 pounds. That's six inches shorter than the 50th percentile male dummy of 1970, but about the same weight.

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Additionally, these female dummies reportedly are only used as a driver in side-impact crash tests for the NHTSA or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In other tests, they are used as passengers or not at all.

But it's about more than body size. Crash test dummies do not account for biological differences between men and women, according to CR. Also, the average woman who is smaller than the average man may sit closer to the steering wheel or may wear her seatbelt a little differently.

Without data on the effect of crashes on most women's bodies, car safety designs may not include the best ways to protect women. 

“The reality of progress in automotive safety is that it heavily relies on regulation,” Consumer Reports automotive safety engineer Emily Thomas said. “Unless the federal motor vehicle safety standards require dynamic crash testing with average-sized female crash dummies in multiple seating positions, driver side included, the dummy industry and automakers won’t make that leap themselves.”

According to CR, an NHTSA spokesperson said the agency's use of the two dummies represents “a broad spectrum of occupant crash protection rather than merely focusing on median body types." 

The Auto Alliance, a trade group, reportedly told CR it did not believe a 50th percentile female dummy would be useful. It said the average American female today is closer in height and weight of the 50th percentile male dummy. As pointed out earlier, the average American woman today is still six inches shorter.

CR reports men make up the majority of Americans injured or killed in car crashes -- partly due to driving more miles and being more likely to engage in risky driving habits. But NHTSA data shows a female in the front seat who is wearing a seat belt is 17 percent more likely than a man to be killed in a crash.

The NHTSA says women are at higher risk than men of the same age for injury from car crashes in these areas if they are in the front seat:

  • Head: 22.1% higher risk
  • Neck: 44.7% higher risk
  • Chest: 26.4% higher risk
  • Arm: 58.2% higher risk
  • Abdomen: 38.5% higher risk
  • Leg: 79.7% higher risk