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A crash test dummy sits in a 2018 Toyota Camry at the New York Auto Show in on March 29, 2018. Despite the differences between female and male bodies, dummies are still based on the physiology of the 50th-percentile man.SHANNON STAPLETON/Reuters

If you’ve ever watched a video of a crash-test dummy go through the harsh rigours of testing – violent side-impact and head-on collisions into a brick wall, crushing weights dropping on knees, metal pendulums careening into chests, heads swivelling side to side and up and down – it’s a grim, cringe-inducing spectacle to watch.

True, these laboratory simulations have saved thousands of human lives since they were introduced into auto-industry testing in the early 1940s, first conducted by the U.S. military.

But that was 60-plus years ago, and one alarming gap persists into the 21st century. Simply put, women do not exist in the world of crash-test research.

The crash-test dummies, with slight variations, used by various safety organizations and automakers are based on the physiology of the 50th-percentile man – flat-chested, straight-hipped, about 170 pounds and 5-foot-9, heavier and taller than the average woman. This became the standard in the 1970s.

Women are not small men, not then or now.

Crash-test dummies simply do not reflect the significantly different anatomy of women – smaller pelvises, wider hips and shorter legs. Shoulder harnesses don’t account for breasts; they are all modelled on the biomechanical structure of men’s bodies.

According to a study – the second conducted in 10 years – by the Centre for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia (UVA), it was once again revealed that women wearing seat belts in a front-end collision are 73 per cent more likely to suffer serious injuries than men. Drivers and female front-seat passengers are also 17 per cent more likely to be killed in a collision than a male occupant.

Let that sink in for minute.

No matter that vehicles nowadays come equipped with an array of new safety tech – the 360-degree camera, lane-assist detectors, voice-activated controls, emergency braking – women can assume the car they are driving is biased against their bodies and will remain that way for the foreseeable future. The higher rate of injury has been known for nearly a decade, and yet there has been little action. “We’re not including females in the data analysis, in the regulatory tests, in anything we do,” says Carolyn Roberts, a PhD mechanical engineering student at the UVA, about the latest study.

“We are improving automotive safety, tolerance, injury and fatality risk as a whole,” says Roberts, who studies the differences in automotive safety outcomes. “However … we’re improving automotive safety for males at a faster rate than we’re improving automotive safety for females.”

That fact is costing women’s lives. Even though the average crash-test dummy can cost between US$50,000 to upward of US$500,000 to build, it’s no excuse that women are underrepresented in the design of life-saving research and technology.

There are many examples of gender inequality in the health and occupational-safety sectors. Until the past couple of decades, women were not used in many health studies based on the premise that menstruation might alter tests or that a woman might be or might become pregnant while a part of the study. Meanwhile, female police officers and those in the military are still wearing protective vests designed and based on men’s bodies. CPR mannequins are also based on the male physique, giving men a 23 per cent higher chance of survival when resuscitation is performed.

According to an article in Consumer Reports Magazine published in October, 2019, the idea of a standard female crash-test dummy was floated by regulators in 1980. It went nowhere. In 1996, U.S. automakers petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a female dummy. What did they come up with? A fifth-percentile creation – meaning one that represents one woman in 20 and one that only serves as a passenger or isn’t used in tests at all.

What is the roadblock to putting female drivers’ safety on par with men’s? A lack of research funding and knowledge about the biomechanical differences between female and male bodies, one expert says.

“Until we understand the fundamental biomechanical factors that contribute to increased risk for females, we’ll be limited in our ability to close the risk gap,” says Jason Forman, a principal scientist with the Center for Applied Biomechanics in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. “This will take substantial effort, and in my view the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not have the resources needed to address this issue.”

It’s hard to believe that science doesn’t understand the biomechanical differences of men and women yet. If science can’t figure it out, maybe automakers, which are continually trying to woo women to buy their cars, can. After all, women make up roughly half of the world’s population and more than half of them have driver’s licences. Many studies also confirm that 80 per cent of women are the decision-makers when it comes to buying the family car.

As we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, the auto industry should be putting money and research into crash testing. That would make dramatic inroads with female car buyers. It’s time for a serious collaboration to build industry-wide crash-test dummies based on a woman’s physique and use them in the rigours of testing. In addition to trying to find ways to get more women involved in the male-dominated industry – and address the hand-wringing over how to put more women in leadership roles – why not concentrate on making cars less deadly for women?

Addressing the gender gap in auto safety is perhaps a far more meaningful – and relevant – innovation than the concept of self-driving cars. It’s time to get real about the clear and present danger to female drivers today.

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