Lack of Gender Diversity in Crash Safety Testing Is Fatal for Women

Too many women suffer preventable deaths and injuries in car accidents. Accurate female crash test dummies must be tested in the driver’s seat equally as men.

A crash test dummy sits in a Toyota Avalon at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on Jan. 12, 2016. (Todd Korol / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

12,039. That’s how many American women were killed in car crashes in 2021—the latest year that gender collision data was available.

12,039 women—nearly 33 women killed every day.

12,039 women—12 percent more than the year before.

12,039 women—a number more devastating knowing that many of their deaths may have been preventable. In other words, these women may have survived the same crash if they were men.

Women are up to 28 percent more likely to be killed in the same collision than men and 73 percent more likely to be severely injured, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

American cars are crash tested in the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). Vehicles undergo four collisions—three with crash test dummies seated inside. Sensors assess the dummies’ damage and determine the car’s starred safety rating. But if the crash test dummy doesn’t act as a person’s body does in a crash, the rating is wrong. And it’s even worse if the dummy isn’t there at all.

NCAP’s ‘female’ dummies—known as the Hybrid III 5th—don’t represent women. They are simply scaled-down versions of men and represent male bones, muscles and organs. All of these affect how a body reacts to a collision. And when I say scaled down, I mean it—the Hybrid III 5th stands under five feet tall and weighs 108 pounds.

And that’s when they bother to use the dummy: The female dummy is never tested as a driver in frontal crashes—the type of collision with the highest fatality rate—despite women being the majority of drivers on American roads.

None of this is news to the DOT. In fact, Consumer Reports found that the Department of Transportation has known about the disparity since the late ’70s. What is new, however, is that something may finally change.

Beginning in 2003, the DOT began funding the THOR 5F dummy. Unlike the Hybrid III 5th, it’s modeled after a woman’s body. It also has nearly double the sensors, and was found to have “good bio fidelity” in 2020. Better yet, the government already owns eight. The Department of Transportation has indicated that it may soon issue a rule-making on the dummy—as required by a March Government Accountability Office report. 

But, there’s one problem: The DOT isn’t planning on testing it in the driver’s seat. 

According to a senior DOT official, “a simple matter of economics” means they’ll never crash test cars equally with female dummies in the driver’s seat.

He continued on to ask, “How many crash tests do you want us to run?”—the only answer to which is, “as many as it takes to make cars safe for women.”

Or, they could do as GM lobbied for in 2005, and replace the male driver with the female in the frontal test entirely. 

VerityNow calculated that if car manufacturers passed the cost of bolstering their safety systems onto consumers, the prices would be raised $1 per car sold—a good investment, compared to the $340 billion spent in the U.S. per year on motor vehicle injuries and deaths. 

Testing an accurate crash test dummy in the driver’s seat would have massive implications for American car safety design. Just look what happened when they put the Hybrid III 5th in the passenger seat in 2012—five-star rankings dropped to two. But automakers adapted … and they could now. 

It can be easy to get lost in the data and lose sight of the impact. But picture your mother, your daughter, your wife, your coworker, your friend. Imagine a distracted driver hitting them. Imagine you find out that their injury or death was preventable. Imagine this happening to 467,985 families across America every year. Now, imagine you have the power to change that.

Take Action

In April, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) called more funding for female crash test dummies “critical” to helping “start to fight the gender inequity in vehicle safety and crash victims.”

Join me in convincing more of our elected officials that women’s lives are worth it, and that accurate female crash test dummies must be tested in the driver’s seat equally as men.

  • Sign the petition started by Drive US Forward, our Gen Z nonprofit working to end gender discrimination in transportation, that calls on NHTSA to adopt the THOR 5F in the NCAP driver’s seat.
  • Follow our InstagramTikTok and Twitter to stay up-to-date on upcoming events and opportunities to get involved.
  • Tell your friends. The only way we win this is by speaking out, together. And we must win this—our lives are on the line. 

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Maria Weston Kuhn is a car crash survivor and recent graduate of Columbia University. She is the founder and president of Drive US Forward, a Gen Z nonprofit working together to end the fatal gender inequity in car safety testing.