Future of Transportation
Designers and researchers are now trying to leverage cutting-edge technology to create a system that better protects every body, women’s included.
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This article is part of our series on the Future of Transportation, which is exploring innovations and challenges that affect how we move about the world.
Today, if a woman in the United States gets into the driver’s seat of most cars, she is 73 percent more likely than a male driver to be severely injured if the car crashes. She is also 17 percent more likely to die. Fatality and injury risks are also higher for older adults, heavier adults and children than it is for young to middle-aged men who weigh around 170 pounds.
These figures are not new: Lawmakers, automakers, safety advocates and researchers have known of these discrepancies for almost a decade, at least. In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration analyzed 50 years of crash data and came to those conclusions. And much of those gaps in safety can be linked to “a vehicle’s design and technology,” the report stated. In other words, many cars are less safe for women and people of certain sizes and ages because they are built that way.
Designers and researchers are, however, trying to leverage cutting-edge technology to create a more standardized bottom line for safety in future car designs.
“The research very much at this stage is about the diversity of body shapes,” said Dr. Lotta Jakobsson, senior technical specialist for injury prevention at Volvo.
Mandates for safety features in cars started in the 1960s and ’70s, much to the chagrin of most automakers; the chief executive of Ford Motors, Henry Ford II, so despised the idea of airbags that he decorated his office with cushions that were embroidered with an expletive next to the words “the airbags.” Before then, most cars had little to no protection for drivers and passengers: There were no seatbelts and no airbags; steering wheels could impale the driver; flimsy doors could pop open in a crash; and unsophisticated brakes made it difficult for drivers to safely avoid a crash. As a result, between 1965 and 1973, roughly 50,000 people were dying in car crashes every year.
In November 1965, the activist and lawyer Ralph Nader published his book “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” a groundbreaking exposé of how car manufacturers were ignoring warnings from their safety engineers and prioritizing style over safety. It set off such widespread public outcry that in less than a year, Congress passed two auto safety laws that put federal safety standards into effect and eventually led to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970.
It was in this era of heightened scrutiny of automakers that federal agencies mandated crash tests for cars. “The modern crash test dummy came around in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” said Chris O’Connor, chief executive of Humanetics, a manufacturer of the current standard crash test dummy, known as the Hybrid III.
The Hybrid III was designed around the average size of a man from that period, Mr. O’Connor explained, and other sizes of the dummy were developed by either scaling up or scaling down that prototype. A female version, for example, “was really just a slightly modified male,” he said. As a result, car safety features that have been introduced in the last five decades — from seatbelts to airbags to the size of the dashboard — have largely been based on the average 1970s man.
But women have different muscle mass and skeletal structure and therefore not only sit differently in cars — scooting up closer to the front in order to reach the brakes, for example — but are also injured differently, according to Caroline Criado Perez, author of “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.” That includes suffering from more whiplash injury than men because the muscular composition of their necks.
It is precisely because of the increased risk of whiplash injury in women that Volvo in 1998 introduced a seat that automatically absorbs most of the energy from a rear-end collision, said Dr. Jakobsson, who studied whiplash injury for her Ph.D. over two decades ago. “The seat, instead of catching and moving, retracts a bit,” she explained. “It’s like catching a ball — you follow the ball with your hand. That’s the main principle behind the design.” Research on the seat, known as WHIPS, found that it halved the risk of long-term whiplash injury compared with older Volvo models. It has been the standard seat in every Volvo model since 1999.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration updated its star rating system to include tests with female crash dummies. But there was a catch: most of those tests required the female dummy to be tested in the passenger seat — a decision that stems from “the 1950s viewpoint that a woman’s either going to be in the passenger seat or the back seat,” said Mr. O’Conner, even though in 2019, more than half of licensed drivers in America were women.
The other gaping blind spot with the current crash testing system is that though most automakers continue to use the Hybrid III dummies, average body sizes have evolved, with the percentage of overweight and obese drivers increasing since the 1970s. “If you have a body mass index of 30 or more, you’re 80 percent more likely to die in a crash,” Mr. O’Connor said. “It goes back to the fact that the restraint systems are not designed for somebody who’s larger.”
The multilayered solution to all of these problems, safety advocates say, involves newer dummies, virtual testing capabilities and sharper regulation.
Researchers, for example, have developed a new generation of dummies, currently manufactured by Humanetics, that are more representative of average people — a process that has taken over a decade of testing, costing tens of millions of dollars. Compared with the Hybrid III, the new dummies also have more sensors built in to pick up on different kinds of injuries.
Another system does not involve physical dummies at all. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, which has been collecting data on human sizes and crash tests since the 1970s and ’80s, is one of a handful of research institutions around the world that have developed a virtual testing system that in the last few years has been adopted by car companies. The system — often used early in the design process, long before a car gets to the physical test — creates computer-generated human models with skeletons and muscles that can be morphed for different ages and sizes. The tool can be expanded to allow carmakers to test on subsets of different ages, sizes and genders, like a 25-year-old man with a B.M.I. of 30 or a 30-year-old pregnant woman.
“You’re not restricted by the design of the physical dummies. You can kind of replicate real fingers and so on. From that, we get more detailed responses,” said Dr. Jakobssen, adding that Volvo has developed its own similar tool in partnership with Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
The more accurate data collected from these tests would, in turn, help automakers design elements for the different body types, like completely customizable seatbelts or airbag systems, Mr. O’Connor said.
None of these innovations, however, are cheap to adopt or mandated, and activists and lawmakers are pushing for regulatory change.
In January, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, a nonprofit research organization run by Mr. Nader, released a report to mark the 55th anniversary of his seminal book with suggestions to update current testing standards and regulations. One proposal would create a separate rating system altogether that would “apply female injury criteria to the dummy test results.”
And in July, bipartisan bills were introduced in the House and the Senate that would investigate the gaps in federal tests and standards. The House bill, for example, would “order a comprehensive Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) study of current federal vehicle safety tests and how those tests impact the safety of all drivers and passengers,” according to a statement about the legislation. The bill would also require an evaluation of “the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s failure to use crash test dummies that represent the driving public, especially women, while assessing vehicle safety.”
“I was startled to learn of allegations related to the gender inequality of auto safety tests,” said Representative Gus Bilirakis, Republican of Florida and a co-signer of the House bill, said in the statement. “I think of my wife, my mother, my sister-in-law — and all the women in my life who have made what they believed to be informed purchases for their family automobiles.”
“This important legislation will modernize the tests being used and improve safety for all drivers.”