Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Cars are safer than they've ever been thanks to new life-saving features, yet women face a much higher risk than men of being seriously injured or killed in a crash, a new study finds.

The big picture: Most vehicle safety tests are conducted using male crash test dummies. But designing safety systems to protect the "average male" leaves everyone else more vulnerable. In the race to develop self-driving cars, some safety advocates worry the danger women face in today's vehicles could be pushed aside to focus on AV safety.

The study: Researchers at the University of Virginia wanted to see how the introduction of safety technologies like multi-stage airbags over the past decade affected injury rates.

  • They examined the injuries sustained by 31,254 belted occupants in 22,854 head-on crashes between 1998 and 2015, and separated the findings into 2 groups: cars built before 2009 and cars built in 2009 or later, to see what had changed.
  • They controlled for various factors such as crash severity, occupant age, height, body mass index and the age of the vehicle.

What they found:

  • The good news: The likelihood of sustaining a serious to fatal injury in newer cars was 55% lower compared to older vehicles.
  • But injuries to women stuck out: Females were 73% more likely than males to sustain a serious to fatal injury in a collision — even after controlling for the fact that women tend to be smaller and sit closer to the steering wheel.
  • Women are especially vulnerable to leg, spine and abdominal injuries, with the odds at least twice those for men.

The reasons aren't entirely clear, because there's a lack of female-specific crash safety data, says Jason Forman, principal scientist at UVA's Center for Applied Biomechanics.

  • 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.
  • It's essentially just a smaller version of a male dummy and doesn't account for what makes women unique: their different muscle strength, fat distribution, bone density — even their monthly hormones.
  • One theory is that a woman's menstrual cycle could affect stiffness in her ligaments and joints, meaning there could be times when she is more susceptible to injury.

What to watch: NHTSA says new, more lifelike dummies are in development, but at several million dollars apiece, change comes slowly, notes Forman, adding that dummies are only as good as the data on which they are based.

"We don't have enough information on the biomechanics of female occupants, or an understanding of the specific factors that create a higher risk for females."
— Jason Forman
  • Virtual crash test dummies, as well as cheaper 3D-printed models, could make it easier to conduct safety tests involving female occupants — but only if the industry isn't distracted by safety challenges in future vehicles.
"This has been such a pervasive issue. We've known about it so long, and yet we tend to lose sight of it because of things that are the hot topic of the day."

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