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Modern female crash dummies can improve safety for women, experts say

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Cars have gotten safer over the decades, but more still needs to be done and the development of female crash dummies may ensure greater safety of women in the U.S.

Women are on average more likely to die or be injured in a car crash than men, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). One 2019 study published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention found that women are 73% more likely to be seriously injured in a crash compared to men.

One reason experts believe women are more at risk: For nearly 50 years the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has failed to upgrade its crash test dummies to 21st-century technology and all of its dummies were designed with only the male body in mind.

Experts say the modern female dummy, which has spent years in testing, will improve safety for women.

“Women have a few areas where they’re more likely to have harm,” said Susan Cronn, a nurse practitioner and researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Lower extremity injury, for sure. They’re more likely to have some moderate injuries. They’re about three times more likely to have moderate injuries like a broken bone or concussion. And then they’re about two times more likely to have a more severe injury, like a collapsed lung or a brain bleed.”

Cronn added that women are also “more likely to have [a] neck injury and suffer some kind of permanent impairments from that. And interestingly, they’re more frequently entrapped in a car than male patients are.”

NHTSA currently uses the 5th percentile adult female dummy in crash testing — the dummy is 4 ’11” and weighs 108 pounds, a smaller version of the original design based on the male body. Manufacturers have developed newer and more advanced dummies to more accurately predict and prevent the injuries women get in car crashes, but the federal government has been slow to adopt this new technology.

In 2019, when Maria Weston Kuhn was on vacation with her family, another driver took a sharp turn around a corner and crashed head-on into her family’s vehicle. While her dad and brother walked away uninjured, she was hospitalized with a ruptured small intestine.

As Kuhn took a semester off from college to recover, she says she learned about the disparity between males and females in crash testing.

“I don’t have the male pelvis that the seat belt was designed for,” Kuhn said. “Instead of hitting the bone, it slid up and hit my stomach, and that’s how it burst my intestine.”

A 2023 report released by GAO stated that “currently used dummies represent a limited range of body sizes, do not reflect some physiological differences between males and females, and do not have sensors to collect data in the lower legs.” The GAO recommended that NHTSA “develop a plan to address limitations in the information provided by dummies.”

NHTSA agreed with the GAO’s recommendation and has been working with the company Humanetics, which has manufactured a more advanced female crash test dummy—the THOR-5F.

The dummy is similar in size and weight to the current dummy, but has features of female anatomy—breasts, a female pelvic bone—and more sensors to predict injuries, according to Humanetics. The dummies have not been approved yet by the federal government, although Humanetics CEO and President Chris O’Connor says they’re ready.

“Our goal and our mission is to save lives and make a difference,” O’Connor told ABC News in Humanetics’ Michigan plant. “We developed this test equipment to represent the current injuries and fatalities being experienced. And yet the products are not getting to the market fast enough.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg said Humanetics needed to make further modifications before their dummies could be approved.

“They’ve produced prototypes in some of our testing,” Trottenberg said. “They didn’t have the durability and that ability to replicate results. So we’ve had some back and forth, but I think we’re getting close.”

Trottenberg said the advanced dummies cost roughly $1 million per dummy.

“We know we’re investing taxpayer dollars in purchasing these dummies, and we want to make sure we’re going to get good results out of them for many years,” Trottenberg said.

O’Connor said there’s no excuse for not moving faster on getting more advanced dummies into crash tests.

“At the end of the day, what we care about is saving lives,” he said. “We care about our daughters and our sisters and our mothers and our grandmothers, and what can we do to make them safer? And how can we get something into place faster?”

The agency responded to the GAO’s 2023 report within 180 days, saying NHTSA was developing a plan to incorporate the THOR 5F female dummy into regulations that would be released by December 30, 2023. NHTSA has currently delayed the rulemaking, which would require the use of these more advanced dummies, until September 2024.

Even if NHTSA does approve the THOR-5F this fall, it will take years before the next-generation female dummy is introduced in crash testing while automakers adjust to the new rules.

“When you tell your story to someone, they’re like ‘Oh, that happened to my mom, or that happened to my sister, my cousin, my friend,'” said Kuhn. “It really just goes to show you the prevalence of which these injuries and fatalities occur.”

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