Biden Administration officials point to the agency, but requests go unanswered.
By: Emily Featherston, Lee Zurik, Jon Decker and Jamie Grey
Originally Published: August 10, 2021
While Congress is working on a bipartisan effort to erase the disparity between men and women when they are behind the wheel, the agency in charge of vehicle safety testing has yet to address the issue and the Biden Administration has largely dodged it.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA, publishes 5-Star Safety Ratings for new vehicles as part of its New Car Assessment Program, but despite multiple requests, the agency has not made anyone available to talk about the growing concerns of lawmakers and industry experts about the safety of female drivers.
A report by InvestigateTV and the Gray Television Washington News Bureau found that NHTSA only uses female crash test dummies in the driver’s seat in one of the tests used to determine 5-Star Safety ratings — a test where the vehicle strikes a stationary object at a 75-degree angle.
Male crash test dummies are used in the driver’s seat for the front and side impact tests. Data from NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show 80% of fatal crashes are front or side impact.
Industry experts say this is a problem because female drivers may think they are safe when data hasn’t been collected to ensure that’s the case.
“I’m personally disappointed with the standards in the sense that there should not be a difference on your gender,” said Chris O’Conner, CEO of Humanetics, a company that manufactures crash test dummies. “When you look at the rating, it should be equal for everybody. And I think it’s misleading when it doesn’t offer you the same equivalent rating.”
The InvestigateTV report in May led a bipartisan group of lawmakers to introduce stand-alone legislation that would order a review of NHTSA’s testing procedures and use of crash test dummies, particularly female, elderly and child dummies.
Similar language was added by Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) to the $1.2 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure package passed by the Senate Tuesday. That bill is expected to go back before the House of Representatives later this fall.
“They [NHTSA] need to face this issue, and help us get it done, and make it more equitable for women,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), one of the sponsors of the legislation, when he found out about the issue in April.
Despite bills gathering support from both Democrats and Republicans, the Biden Administration has largely stayed out of the conversation.
When asked by Gray Television’s White House correspondent during a press briefing about the pending legislation, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave a basic overview of NHTSA’s protocols when it comes to crash testing, but she otherwise side-stepped the issue.
“I do know that NHTSA who oversees this effort does use female crash test dummies in some of their safety testing and uses data to determine where to use each size and gender dummies,” Psaki said during the July 14 press briefing.
“But otherwise, I would refer you to NHTSA who would have more additional information. I don’t have any announcements about support for legislation at this point.”
InvestigateTV again requested an interview with NHTSA, referring to the press secretary’s direction to ask the agency directly for more information. Those requests did not receive any response.
Despite this, lawmakers have made it clear that if legislation passes, they expect an answer from NHTSA — and a timely one.
The stand-alone bills and the language included in the bi-partisan infrastructure bill would have either the Government Accountability Office or NHTSA itself prepare an interim report to congress on the issue.
O’Conner says the progress is beyond due.
“At the end of the day, if you’re seeing women dying 20% more often in a driver seat belted than a male, that’s something we need to fix,” he said, referencing a University of Virginia study that found women are 73% more likely to be injured and 18-20% more likely to be killed behind the wheel.
“And we can’t wait,” he said. “We can’t wait for three years or four years to get a change in place. There should be movement to hit a change in place yesterday.”
InvestigateTV reached out to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group for automobile manufacturers, to get its perspective about the pending legislation and issue as a whole.
A spokesperson responded with an emailed statement from CEO John Bozzella:
“Automotive safety is the industry’s top priority and automakers rely on accurate, repeatable anthropomorphic test devices (ATDs), known commonly as crash test dummies, to support crashworthiness safety development and compliance.
“Every day, vehicles are getting more advanced with new safety enhancements. Earlier this year Auto Innovators released recommendations for the New Car Assessment Program entitled the ‘Plan to Advance Safety at the Speed of Innovation,’ which include an expanded focus that includes both crashworthiness and crash avoidance.”
That plan, which is available online, recommends modernizing crash testing procedures and equipment, but does not explicitly address the use of female crash test dummies.