The testing used by the federal government to determine one of the most popular safety standards in America largely ignores the female body, and even when it does consider women, the technology is nearly four decades old.
By Emily Featherston, Lee Zurik, Jon Decker and Jamie Grey
Originally Published: May 10, 2021
(InvestigateTV/Gray DC) It takes just seconds: a car crosses the center line on a highway, or misses a stop sign, colliding with another vehicle. What happens next largely depends on speed, the type of vehicle and road conditions — but it can also depend on who is driving.
In the United States, female drivers are 73% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash compared to male drivers in a similar crash, according to research from the University of Virginia.
Women are also nearly 20% more likely to be killed behind the wheel.
Despite this, the testing used to determine one of the most popular safety standards in America largely ignores the female body, and even when it does consider women, the technology is nearly four decades old.
Experts say the slow move to innovate is putting the lives of the country’s 116 million female drivers at risk.
“It’s definitely not acceptable,” said Alicia Trautwein, a St. Louis woman injured in a 2014 crash.
Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chooses a few dozen vehicle makes and models to put through a set of safety tests as part of its New Car Assessment Program.
The results are published in a metric familiar to those who have seen or heard advertisements for new cars: The 5-Star Safety Rating.
Vehicles are purchased by the government at dealerships and put through four tests — a front-impact collision, a perpendicular side-impact collision, an angled collision with a stationary pole and a test to see if the vehicle will roll over when taking a sharp turn.
The results are published, and car manufacturers can use them to tout the safety features of their new vehicle.
What the results do not say up front is when it comes to the driver, those standards, are based largely on the safety of a roughly 5-foot-9-inch, 170-pound male, and for anyone who is not that size, the safety features of a car are likely to be less effective, according to crash test equipment manufacturers.
In the front- and side-impact collision tests, the NCAP puts the male dummy, which is designed to represent an “average” male driver, or the 50th percentile male height and weight, in the driver’s seat.
According to data from NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 80% of fatal crashes were front- or side-impact.
The only NCAP test that uses a female dummy — a 4-foot-11-inch, 110-pound unit representing a petite female driver, or the 5th percentile female height and weight — is a test simulating a car hitting a fixed object at a 75-degree angle.
“I think women in America would be surprised that the ratings are not equivalent,” said Chris O’Connor, president and CEO of Humanetics, a Michigan-based company that produces devices for safety testing, including crash test dummies.
When interviewed by InvestigateTV, women who are living with complications of serious crashes in recent years said they were indeed surprised.
Lucky to be Alive
[Editor’s note, the following section contains graphic descriptions of injuries sustained in a car crash. Reader discretion is advised.]
In August 2018, Lila Deline woke up in an intensive care hospital room after being mostly unconscious for four days.
“I kept waking up and going, ‘This isn’t my house,’” she said, “and I could hear my husband and his best friend chatting, so I assumed that I fell asleep on the couch or something.”
In reality, she was recovering from extensive injuries due to a car crash that happened just as she was arriving home.
“I was coming home,” she said, “and from what I’m told, because I don’t remember, I had slowed down to a stop and was waiting for oncoming traffic to turn left into the driveway here, and a woman who apparently zoned out, didn’t notice I was stopping, hit me at full speed, pushed me about 150 feet.”
The impact caused Deline’s skull to dislocate from her spine, known as internal decapitation. She also broke multiple bones, including some of her vertebrae.
Her husband, who is trained in emergency medical response, held her head steady until help arrived.
Deline recalled meeting a nurse several months later who had been shocked she survived.
“She said, ‘I remember I was standing over the MRI going, how are we gonna fix that?’” she said.
Years later, Deline now lives with chronic pain and mobility limitations due to the crash, such as trouble moving her head and neck, but she considers herself fortunate given how badly she was hurt.
“I’ve gotten very lucky, blessed, whichever word you want to use,” she said.
Deline said it never occurred to her that being female and five-foot-five may have made a difference.
Her injuries, however, highlight a particular area in which experts such as those at Humanetics say women are most vulnerable — in the neck.
“Their anatomy is different,” O’Connor, Humanetics CEO, said. “Their neck strength, their head, their torso versus their pelvis, where they sit relative to the steering wheel, how they sit in the vehicle, all add to the level of injuries that [women] get. So, the key is really having a device that can measure those injuries.”
The NCAP testing for new cars also does not include a rear-impact test, despite counterparts in Europe adding the test in recent years.
Rear-impact crashes often result in whiplash — something O’Connor said is of particular concern to female drivers because of lower muscle mass in the neck, making whiplash worse.
And on top of the lack of testing — even when female crash test dummies are used, they are based on technology developed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Crash testing as most people recognize it today has its origins in the 1970s, when the federal government began regulating vehicle safety more closely. That’s also when the use of anthropomorphic testing devices, better known as “crash test dummies,” expanded.
Humanetics was there from the beginning, O’Connor explained.
“Even before the modern crash test dummies, we were providing mannequins for ejection seats for the Air Force, and a variety of different applications,” he said.
But now almost 70 years since the company was founded, O’Connor said he and others are frustrated with where vehicle safety testing is in the U.S.
“The standards have lagged a little bit, in my opinion,” he said.
The male 50th percentile and female 5th percentile dummies used by NHTSA and most automobile manufacturers, known as Hybrid III models, have been the standard since the 1970s and 1980s, despite a newer model entering the scene in the 2000s after NHTSA commissioned research in the area in the 1990s.
That model, known as the THOR (Test device for Human Occupant Restraint) was developed by companies, including Humanetics, in tandem with NHTSA in an effort to make crash test dummies more “biofidelic,” meaning they better replicate what happens to the human body during a crash.
“If you look at the technology in 1980, you didn’t have the capability,” O’Connor said. “The rib cage, the thorax, the legs, they’re much more human-like because technology has allowed that to happen.”
The Hybrid III, which Humanetics also produces and is primarily used in NCAP and other federally-required tests, only offers a few dozen data points from 10 or so sensors, while the THOR has up to 200.
Specifically, and O’Connor says most importantly for female drivers, the THOR has more sensors in the legs and pelvic area, where there is the greatest disparity in injuries. That model also has more sensitive instruments in the neck and chest to accommodate for breast tissue and muscle mass.
“It allows [us] to understand the injuries in these different circumstances,” he said. “This allows the [manufacturers] and the safety providers to design safer cars for female drivers and occupants of the car.”
But despite NHTSA initiating the research that led to the THOR nearly three decades ago, the organization has not officially adopted it as the standard for automobile safety testing and has not introduced it as part of the NCAP 5-Star Safety Rating tests where other countries have.
Documents published by NHTSA indicate the agency is still conducting further research on the THOR, despite the agency originally aiming to make a decision on using the new technology by 2014, and most recently saying guidance would come by the end of 2020.
O’Connor said the drawn-out timeline is a problem, because the technology is likely to remain underutilized if it isn’t required.
“At the end of the day, we do what we’re measured against,” he said, “and so we need the government and we need NHTSA, (in) this case, to try to move faster.”
‘It’s absolutely terrifying’
Alicia Trautwein, a parenting lifestyle blogger in St. Louis, said she agrees things need to be improved to better protect female drivers.
“It has to change. I mean, it’s just plain and simple,” she said.
Trautwein, like Lila Deline, is living with chronic pain from a serious car crash. She was hit from behind while exiting a highway in 2014.
She was also 12 weeks pregnant with her son at the time.
“My biggest concern at the time, honestly, was I was pregnant,” she said. “And, during that time, your body, your ligaments are more stretched out, you have more chance of injuring your child more chance of injuring herself.”
She also experienced significant whiplash, and now has to take medication and go regularly to physical therapy to ease chronic pain due to damaged spinal discs.
At 5-foot-1, she said she thinks her stature made a difference during the crash.
“I’m very small,” she said. “You know, sitting in a car, even though it was a regular, standard sized car, I was so close to the steering wheel, that there’s this, higher chance of me getting injured.”
She said looking back knowing her car likely wasn’t tested with a female dummy in the driver’s seat is frustrating.
“To think that had there been better standards, in any cars that we drive, [they] could have made a difference in my car accident, could have made a difference in countless car accidents and safety, that I could have been less injured had they taken that into account, I mean, that’s definitely frustrating,” she said.
Deline had similar thoughts, though she said she believes the onus should be on manufacturers, rather than a government requirement.
“It feels to me kind of lazy,” she said. “I think they go, ‘Well, it’s good enough,’ and they want to spend their money other places.”
Manufacturers are allowed to use the THOR device for research and development and in safety tests outside federal standards, but are not required to.
As mothers of teenage girls who are driving or will soon be driving, both women said learning the safety standards are based primarily on male drivers is alarming.
“It’s absolutely terrifying,” Trautwein said. “The fact that she’s going to be on the road is already scary enough as a parent and then you consider the fact that the safety standards aren’t set up for her. It’s absolutely terrifying as a parent.”
O’Connor said he and others at Humanetics are not only concerned about female drivers, but anyone who falls outside the scope of the Hybrid III male dummy’s size.
“We’re not all the same size,” he said. “We have our grandfather getting in the car, we have our grandmother, we have our 16-year-old daughter in the car. They’re all different sizes and shapes.”
O’Connor said a male driver who is 200 pounds or shorter than 5-foot-9 is still outside of the standard, and therefore less safe.
Female drivers who are closer to 170 pounds, he said, will see improved safety compared to the average male, but there are still differences in bone density, muscle mass and fat distribution that can alter how they are injured in a crash.
“It’s not a scaled down male [that] makes a female,” he said.
NHTSA has been re-evaluating its testing procedures over the last few years, but most of the re-evaluation has been focused on adding language that accounts for autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, as well as the addition of safety enhancements such as automatic braking.
In addition to the tests for the NCAP, NHTSA oversees other safety tests for vehicles under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which looks at everything from airbags to safety labels.
In section 208 of the standards, the section that outlines occupant safety, 14 crash tests are conducted with male 50th percentile dummies, while only six use the female 5th percentile dummies.
Despite multiple requests, NHTSA declined to make anyone available for an interview.
However, InvestigateTV and the Gray Television Washington News Bureau spoke with lawmakers about the issue and found bipartisan frustration, as well as support for change — as soon as possible.
“Women have achieved equality on the road, that is to say in driving, but when it comes to testing, so that we are sure they are safe on the road, they are nowhere near achieving equality,” said Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
The Washington, D.C. Democrat said she’s aware that while vehicle and safety technology have greatly advanced over the last four decades, testing has remained behind despite advances in the industry.
“It exists, but we have not updated what is required,” she said.
Norton is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and her views were shared by Florida Congressman Gus M. Bilirakis, the top Republican on the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which oversees NHTSA.
Bilirakis said when he learned female drivers are 73% more likely to be seriously injured and up to 20% more likely to be killed, he was stunned.
“I’m very surprised,” he said “and it’s very serious. This is a serious issue. It’s about safety. It’s about our family members, it’s about our constituents.”
Norton said she thinks improvements to NHTSA’s testing policies, particularly for the NCAP, could be accomplished without legislation.
“Congress could mandate that the agency take the necessary action,” she said, “but frankly I think the easiest way to do it is to write the agency for an explanation of why they have not updated the technology.”
Bilirakis said even if it does take bringing a bill to the floor, he’s willing to do it.
“If it takes legislation to get it done, if it takes an appropriation to get it done, we need to get it done because we’re saving lives,” he said.
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, said she looks forward to working with Bilirakis and others on the effort.
“Automobile safety should not be reserved for just the average adult male. Our auto safety regulations must ensure that vehicles protect all vehicle occupants, including women, children, and elderly occupants. I look forward to working with my colleagues to end the disparities,” she said in a statement.
In its 2021 appropriation request, NHTSA asked for $13.45 million to continue evaluating the female THOR dummy. In fiscal year 2019, the agency spent approximately $9 million to purchase four male THOR dummies for further study, and update the four it already has.
Congressman Bilirakis said he anticipates there will be a hearing on the matter during the current Congress.
Back at Humanetics, O’Connor said he thinks the Biden administration is particularly poised to move the effort to upgrade the technology and testing practices forward.
“I think the new administration more than ever cares about gender equity,” he said. “I think what we have to figure out as a government and as a NHTSA organization, as part of DOT (Department of Transportation), is how they can move swifter, because the reality is you have to take the interest in immediately converted into action.”
In Europe, new cars are already being put to the test against the THOR, with the models officially becoming part of testing in 2020.
The problem, O’Connor said, is that NHTSA testing and consideration has taken years, where it needs to be implemented as soon as possible to save lives on the road.
“If you’re seeing women dying, dying 20% more often in a driver seat, belted, than a male — that’s something we need to fix,” he said. “And we can’t wait. 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.”
And there are other groups pushing for change.
The Center for Study of Responsive Law, an advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader — the Independent political activist known for taking on the automobile industry in the past — included introducing THOR dummies into NCAP testing as one of its recommendations “for further reducing auto deaths and injuries.”
The group also suggests creating a separate NCAP for female drivers, as well as a “Silver NCAP” for older adults.
Meanwhile, the latest batch of new car safety ratings have already been published by NHTSA, with only a handful of vehicles with ratings below four stars.
Knowing what she does now about the testing involved, Alicia Trautwein, the St. Louis mother injured in 2014, said the numbers ring hollow.
“When you hear safety standards, and then a certain car might be safer, or is in certain ways safer, you’re thinking that that’s for anyone who’s driving. You don’t think it’s only for men as opposed to women,” she said. “So, it’s very misleading.”