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Are You Being Misgendered By A Crash Test Dummy?

It may have come to your notice that not all car drivers are men. For most of us, this isn’t much of a staggering revelation, especially if you are a woman. Or if you were ever driven places by your mother. Or taught your daughter to drive. Or asked your wife or girlfriend to share the driving with you on a long-haul trip interstate. Or if… well, you get the picture. However, it seems as if car manufacturers, especially those responsible for the passive safety features, haven’t quite cottoned onto this yet, as a whole.  You’d think that Bertha Benz had never taken her husband’s prototype horseless carriage out for a long drive to demonstrate to the world that this new invention was easy to use.

The road safety analysts who collect facts on these sorts of things found, when they separated out the data for men and the data for women, found out that women are 73% more likely to be injured in a vehicle crash than men and 17% more likely to die in one. This isn’t because they’re crashing at a higher rate, either. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the US, men still crash more and are more likely to do silly things like not wear seatbelts, drive too fast and drive drunk. However, if they do get into identical crashes, a man is more likely to survive it than a woman.

One has to ask why, given that most car manufacturers pride themselves on how good their safety features are. After all, they do all those crash tests with dummies, don’t they? Surely these should make cars safer for both men and women?

Well, yes. Lots of passive safety features such as airbags have become standard on just about every new vehicle thanks to these tests. But there’s a wee problem with these tests, as pointed out by investigator and social commentator Caroline Criado-Perez in her book Invisible Women. Ms Criado-Perez dug around a bit and found out a few things about the standard crash test dummies used in most tests by most manufacturers. In these tests, they tend to use three main ones for the frontal crash tests: one 95th percentile male (in other words, a dummy representing a really big dude who’s bigger than 95% of other guys), a 50th percentile male (an average guy) and a 5th percentile female dummy (a teeny lady who’s shorter than 95% of the population). In other words, tests are carried out on twice as many male dummies as they are on female dummies. That’s a wee bit of a problem to begin with.

However, it gets worse. According to Ms Criado-Perez, during those frontal crash tests, the female dummy isn’t even tested in the driver’s seat – she goes into the front passenger seat. This makes you wonder what century these designers are living in. Surely, given that they’re putting all these electronic assistance gadgets, they know that this is the 21st century and that women drive cars, don’t they? The good news here is that in Australia, the ANCAP tests do put that 5th percentile female dummy in the driver’s seat during the frontal tests – good for them.

However, there’s one wee problem with that female dummy. OK, she’s smaller than the male ones and she’s got boobs, but when it comes to actual anatomy, that dummy doesn’t actually represent real female biology. What the designers did was to simply take the male dummy, scale it down and put boobs on it. The trouble is that nature doesn’t work like that. There are differences between male and female skeletons – that’s forensics 101 (yes, literally; it’s part of the basic undergraduate anatomy course). Take necks for example.  If a man and a woman have the same sized head, the woman will have thinner neck vertebrae and a thinner neck.  Now look down a bit to the other end of the spine, and look at the pelvis. The male pelvis is narrower and has a heap of different angles, which means that a guy’s legs are also straighter – and that’s just the start. The differences between male and female pelvises are as different as the soft bits found in and on the pelvis (yes, the bits you’re thinking of). And the list goes on: men have longer ribcages and denser long bones as well.

In short, using a smaller version of a male dummy doesn’t actually represent a female body. Women are being misgendered by crash test dummies, in effect.

Would you be surprised to learn that in one recent study on sex differences between injuries from car crashes, women were more likely to have injuries to their pelvises and spines – the places where female bodies are most different from male bodies? Those whiplash-protecting headrests do something, but they’re better at protecting male necks than female necks – because they’ve been tested on what are essentially male dummies.

However, this isn’t an excuse for men to hog the driver’s seat.  Volvo is one car manufacturer who has cottoned onto the fact that women have been driving since Bertha Benz took a road trip through the Schwartzwald, and they’re starting to work out how they can make cars safer for 100% of drivers.  What’s more, a more anthropomorphically correct female dummy has been invented, known as the THOR-5F.  The THOR-5F isn’t just a scaled-down male dummy but has been built to actually represent that dainty 5th percentile female, pelvis, neck and all. This dummy even has a whole heap of sensors in the abdomen and the dummy looks like she’s in the second trimester of pregnancy.  A crash test mummy, if you like. Here’s hoping that ANCAP and the other safety testing authorities will insist that this dummy or other dummies based on real women must be used in crash tests.

In the meantime, keep on driving safely and always wear your seatbelt (even if arranging it around your boobs is awkward).

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