Mar 15, 2022 - Economy

Proposed 5-star safety rules give short shrift to women drivers

Illustration of a road sign with a female icon holding her head

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Significant updates proposed to the federal government's flagship 5-Star Safety Rating program do nothing to address the higher risk faced by female drivers.

Why it matters: Women face a higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash — but most vehicle safety systems are tested using male crash test dummies.

  • Designing safety technologies to protect "the average male" leaves everyone else more vulnerable, safety advocates say.

Driving the news: The updates suggested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lean heavily on new driver-assistance technologies to try to make automobiles safer.

Among the proposals:

  • Institure more stringent testing of NHTSA-recommended technologies and of four new ones: lane-keeping support, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection and blind spot intervention.
  • Potentially add technologies related to driver distraction, alcohol detection and driver monitoring systems, among others.
  • Consider a new crash avoidance rating for driver-assistance technologies that could be displayed on the car's window sticker.

Yes, but: The proposed updates don't address the existing gender gap in vehicle safety testing, says former Rep. Susan Molinari, co-chair of a safety coalition called Verity (Vehicle Equity Rules in Transportation) Now.

  • “Until we require up-to-date female dummies in all crash tests, as the rule proposes to do for men, the U.S. government is sending a signal that it doesn’t believe women’s lives are as important as men’s,” Molinari said in a statement.

NHTSA acknowledges that women face a higher risk of dying in a crash.

  • "Although men consistently represent more than 70 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes, when comparable crashes are analyzed and risk taking differences are accounted for, studies have shown that motor vehicle fatality risk is, on average, 17 percent higher for a female than for a male of the same age," per its newly released National Roadway Safety Strategy.

Between the lines: Men are riskier drivers, which is why they account for 70% of the overall fatalities.

  • But in comparable crashes, women are more likely to die because their bodies differ in terms of size, bone density and muscle structure. They also sit closer to the steering wheel.
  • The standard crash test dummy is a 50th-percentile male that represents the average U.S. soldier in the 1960s.
  • A female dummy, added in the early 2000s, represents a 5th-percentile woman — under 5 feet tall and 108 pounds — and thus doesn't consider the other 95% of women.
  • There are no test dummies available to represent midsize women, but NHTSA uses computer simulation to fill the gap.

The other side: A NHTSA spokesperson says its 5-Star Safety Ratings system — also known as the New Car Assessment Program — has improved safety for all vehicle occupants, and the regulations "appear to have also significantly reduced gender disparity in crash outcomes."

  • The infrastructure law enacted in 2021 aims to accelerate research into eliminating gender disparities in deaths and injuries.

Where it stands: NHTSA has a 60-day comment period on the proposed rules.

What to watch: NHTSA plans to propose a new, more lifelike dummy from Humantics called the THOR-50M. It is also based on the 50th-percentile male.

Go deeper: The gender gap in car safety leaves women at risk

Go deeper