Accelerating equality on the roads
We have previously told the story of the Swedish inventor Nils Bohlin, who saved millions of lives by not patenting his invention of the 3-point seatbelt. Although the invention was game-changing, to this day, thousands of people still die in traffic each year, and the world desperately needs car safety development. Recently, a big industry leap was made – and so, Sweden is once again on the receiving end of global media attention. This time, the buzz is about the invention of a female crash test dummy that might change the fact that women are more likely to die in car crashes than men.
As of recent, BBC, CNN, New York Times, The Guardian, and Forbes, to mention a few, have all devoted column inches to tell the story of Dr. Astrid Linner. But who is she?
Dr. Astrid Linder is a Swedish engineer who leads a team of researchers at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute. Together, they have developed a female crash test dummy that represents the average female's body more closely than ever – and it has drawn attention to the gender inequality debate and regulatory part of crash testing. Christopher O’Connor – the CEO of the largest manufacturer of crash test dummies, Humanetics – told BBC how the crash testing industry “hasn't taken into account the differences between a male and a female in the past.” According to the same source, the UN is therefore looking into examining its regulations on crash testing.
"Outdated crash test standards risk leaving thousands of women, young people, elderly, and non-average-size males at risk for death and severe injury."
The deadly truth
According to the Verity Now (Vehicle Equity Rules in Transportation) campaign site, "outdated crash test standards risk leaving thousands of women, young people, elderly, and non-average-size males at risk for death and severe injury." The campaign group strives to achieve equity in vehicle safety and warns that women in particular are more vulnerable in car crashes. They are 17% more likely to die than men and 70% more likely to be injured – even when controlling for factors such as height, weight, seatbelt usage, and crash intensity. This is due to the fact that women, on average, are smaller than men and have different muscle strengths, as well as different shapes in their torso, hip, and pelvis, which affect their body's response to the impact of car crashes.
Outdated safety testing
Swedish Nils Bohlin's invention of the three-point seatbelt, which was introduced by Volvo in 1959, is considered one of the most important safety innovations in the history of the car. And although it has saved millions of lives, vehicle and road safety is still a key focus for car engineers worldwide, as car crashes are still one of the main causes of death worldwide – and so they use test dummies to simulate how humans react to crashes and utilize those data to develop safer cars.
Though we have come a long way since animals, human cadavers, and volunteers were used for crash testing, the dummies used today are all modeled after the average US male by 1970, while a scaled-down version of the male dummy is being used to represent the female body. The scaled-down version, though, is more likely to represent the body of a 12-year-old girl rather than the average adult woman. Tjark Kreuzinger, a specialist in the field for Toyota, told BBC: “You can see that this is a bias. When all the men in the meetings decide, they tend to look to their feet and say, ‘this is it’. It is typically a male decision – and that’s why we do not have average female dummies.” In short, this decision-making has led to a world where cars are engineered to protect men.
Meet EVA – the female dummy
One of the drivers that led Astrid Linder and her team to investigate the field was testimonies. Maria Weston Kuhn, who was involved in a car crash, pointed out that the seat belt “was designed to stop a man’s forward momentum by catching his rigid hip bones. For me, it didn’t. It slid above my hips, pinned my intestine against my spine, and ruptured it.” After this experience, Maria joined the UN’s Global Youth Coalition for Road Safety.
Introducing a new era for dummies, Astrid Linder explains the team’s invention in an interview with CNN: “The aim of the prototype dummy is to show that we have the data to make models of the female population in the same way as we have, for a long time, made models of the male population.” The dummy – dubbed EVA – is designed digitally with data from the University of Michigan’s tool humanshape.org, where thousands of measures are compiled in a database of body shapes.
In an interview with NPR, Astrid Linder elaborated on the differences between the male and female bodies that the team considered in the development of the crash test dummy: “We have a very strong focus on how the torso looks. And there, we have some geometrical differences between males and females, but we also have differences in joint stiffnesses. Females have fewer muscles and with a lower total strength, which corresponds to a lower stiffness between the joints.”
While Astrid Linder and her team’s dummy has created waves throughout the industry, it is merely a step in the right direction. Companies have shown their interest in the dummy, but regulation is needed to ensure that the tools are put to widescale use.
"Today, regulation tells you that you should use a model of an average male, full stop. We have to have a regulation that goes hand in hand with society".
“Today, regulation tells you that you should use a model of an average male, full stop. We have to have a regulation that goes hand in hand with society. We expect women and men to use the transport system and so on, so both parts of the population should be represented in the assessment of car safety,” says Astrid Linder to CNN.
The media attention brought to the field after the launch of the dummy is promising, and recently, a team in the United States House of Representatives introduced legislation to “improve the federal government’s vehicle safety testing practices, specifically those involving the use of crash test dummies”.
Let’s hope this is just the start of pushing the equity agenda in vehicle safety, ensuring that the roads of the future are made safer for all parts of the population.
A little more info:
Cities aren't designed for women by World Economic Forum
Gender equality for crash test dummies, too by ScienceNordic
In a world designed for men, the effects for women range from inconvenient to fatal by The Washington Post