Consumer Reports: Crash test dummies’ male design may put women at risk

‘There are important physiological differences between men and women that makes our bodies react differently during a car crash’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A revealing Consumer Reports investigation takes a look at how crash test dummies have been designed, and why a troubling flaw could result in potentially deadly consequences for women.

You might think that by the looks of a crash test dummy it would represent a wide range of drivers. But, despite their blank faces and androgynous features, most dummies used in auto crash tests represent a very specific type of driver -- an average adult male -- which researchers say pose a safety risk to women.

Graphic showing the design of a male crash test dummy.
Graphic showing the design of a male crash test dummy. (WJXT)

“There are no crash test dummies that represent the average female in our country, and that’s despite the fact that women are nearly half the drivers and are more than half the population,” said Consumer Reports Advocacy Expert David Friedman.

Results from safety crash tests have a direct impact on how cars are designed to make them safer. But, if safety tests prioritize adult men, what does that mean for women?

A recent study from the University of Virginia reveals a seat belt-wearing woman is 73% more likely to be seriously injured in a frontal car crash than a man. And, a study from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a female driver or female front passenger -- wearing her seat belt -- is 17% more likely to be killed in a car crash than a male occupant of the same age.

Crash test showing front passenger.
Crash test showing front passenger. (WJXT)

“This has been a clear problem since at least the 1980s back when the regulators actually first asked for there to be dummies starting to represent women -- what they got was a scaled-down version of a male dummy that today is so small that really it represents a young teenager,” Friedman said.

Consumer Reports said automakers disagree that a change would help. The Auto Alliance, a US automaker trade group, told Consumer Reports it does not believe a female dummy would be useful because the current American female is closer in height and weight to the male dummy currently used for testing.

But Consumer Reports said car makers and crash testers need to consider much more than just the size of dummies for different genders.

“It’s not enough for us to just take the male dummy and scale it down to the size of a female," said Emily Thomas Ph.D., automotive safety engineer at Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. "There are important physiological differences between men and women that make our bodies react differently during a car crash. That’s why it’s important for us to account for these biomechanical and material differences in our dummy design.”

Government agencies are evaluating a new set of dummies, called THOR. They have been in development since the 1980s and may be used in European crash tests as soon as this year. They’ll be able to collect more data than the current model. However, there are currently no plans for an average female THOR dummy.