A female crash test dummy is shown against a black background.

Is Car Crash-Testing Sexist?

Although it might be hard to imagine how that’s possible, it would seem that current testing for car safety – crash testing in particular – is, in fact, sexist. Or at least not designed with gender equity in mind, and the results are quite deadly. In the long list of things I never thought I would write, the title of this piece is pretty high up there, and yet here we are. Don’t let my somewhat flippant tone fool you; this isn’t something to be taken lightly. Car crash-testing is male-oriented, and this means women are inherently less safe on the road.

To really understand this issue, we need to take a look at how this sort of crash testing came to be and what it does. The idea behind it all is certainly great: test vehicles in replicated real-world conditions to see how safe they are and then require that they meet certain standards to help save lives. Unfortunately, like so much else in this world, good intentions only carried us so far as a society, and so we’re at a point where things aren’t as safe as they should be. Will that change any time soon? With a little luck and the right people making the right choices, yes, it will.

What is Crash Testing?

Before we get into what’s going on right now, let’s all get on the same page about what we’re even talking about. You’ve probably heard of car crash-testing before, but it’s essentially the process through which vehicles are tested to see how safe they are. For decades now, in order for a vehicle to legally be sold here in the US, it has to meet certain safety standards as set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), under the US Department of Transportation, for a wide range of different safety categories. This applies to new vehicles. However, there are older models that can get grandfathered in and don’t have to meet these standards, depending on how old they are.

Over the years, the testing has changed, and there are numerous tests included as part of this overall system. The basic idea, however, is that a test vehicle is crashed into a number of different objects and other vehicles to see how well it holds up to various types of collisions. Some of these tests involve hitting a solid, stationary object at speed, while other tests require the vehicle to be slammed into by something else. Overall, the point is to recreate common types of collisions that can happen and see how well the vehicle can absorb the impact, move the force of that collision away from passengers, and protect passengers within the vehicle.

What about Crash Test Dummies?

Assuming for the moment that we’re not talking about the 1990s alternative rock band, crash test dummies are used to try to see how a collision impacts the people within a vehicle. It’s one thing to slam one car or SUV into another and see what kind of damage occurs to the outside of it, but that doesn’t really tell you how safe the vehicle is. In order to see how well a Chevy Silverado or Toyota RAV4 actually protects the people in it, you need to see what happens to them. So crash test dummies are placed inside the vehicle during these collision tests to see how violently they’re thrown around and how well they’re protected by various safety systems.

I should also mention that there are different levels and types of crash testing that vehicles can go through. There’s mandatory testing for minimum standards required of all vehicles sold as new, as well as voluntary testing to earn a safety rating from the NHTSA. This voluntary testing is where a vehicle can earn one to five stars for different types of testing and safety features. When you see a vehicle advertised with a “5-star safety rating,” it refers to testing through the NHTSA and will translate to overall safety or one of the various categories.

So far, this all seems well and good. These tests have made vehicles far safer than they’ve ever been, and there’s no denying that the improvements companies have made to earn 5-star safety ratings have saved countless lives. How, then, do we get to the big question of…

A crash test dummy in an orange jumpsuit is shown sitting against a crashed car.

Is Car Crash-Testing Sexist?

The problem goes back to the aforementioned crash test dummies. Even though there are dummies available that accurately fit the average proportions for modern men, women, and children, they’re not used or required in testing. According to a letter recently sent by Verity Now, a “coalition for vehicle equity rules in transportation,” to US Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, current standards for testing only require a crash test dummy that fits the standards of an average-sized male from the 1970s. This is specifically in reference to what is required for the driver’s seat.

In other words, rather than run multiple tests using an average-sized male figure from today and an average female figure, the only required testing uses a male-sized dummy from 50 years ago. Based on this simple information, yes, there is definitely some sexism in crash-testing for cars, or at the very least, there is a clear lack of equity. This sounds bad on paper, but the reality is actually far more horrifying.

According to this letter, data from the NHTSA shows that women are up to 18.5% more likely to die in a vehicle crash than men are – likely due to not testing vehicles with a woman in the driver’s seat. This information also reveals that in crashes with a fatality, women are more than 9% more likely to die from a neck injury. Perhaps worst of all, due to this lack of testing and updates in standards, a typical seat belt won’t fit more than 60% of women in the third trimester of pregnancy. So women, overall, are more likely to be killed in a car collision, and about two-thirds of women who are nearing the end of their pregnancy can’t even wear a seatbelt.

While the letter and information does not go into the details of the fatal neck injuries, the auto industry (and accident injury lawyers) has long known that there’s a risk of serious injury from someone sliding under a seatbelt during a collision. If these aren’t being tested on dummies matching the average size of a woman while driving, then there’s little chance of detecting such a flaw in design. Estimates state that more than 1,300 women are dying needlessly every year due to these failures in testing equity.

A row of crash test dummies are shown from behind.

How to Improve Things

The good news is that it would be pretty simple to fix this flaw – the latest generation of crash test dummies already exists with figures for modern men and women. They wouldn’t need to create anything new, just update the standards to utilize modern dummies and require testing for both male and female figures. The standards should include testing both male and female dummies in the driver’s seat and all passenger seats, which should be required for both the necessary standard testing and voluntary testing.

In addition to this, the letter sent to Secretary Buttigieg also urged that Congress should require the NHTSA to review crash testing procedures regularly and update them without the need of intervention by anyone else. It will be interesting to see what action occurs in response to this letter and the movement toward gender equity in safety standards. Anything that makes cars safer on the road is a good thing; you can’t force drivers to be more careful, but at least we can be as protected from others as possible.