In 2011, a University of Virginia study found that, among people who wore seat belts, women were almost 50% more likely than men to suffer serious or even fatal injuries in a motor vehicle crash.
Now, another University of Virginia team has found that women are 73% more likely than men overall to be seriously injured or killed in a vehicle wreck. Yet no one has been able to point to a definitive answer as to why.
The recent study, which was released earlier this month, examined crashes that took place between 1998 and 2015 and involved over 31,000 people. The researchers compared the crashes, controlling for each car’s model year and each person’s height, weight, BMI, age and proximity to the steering wheel. Even with those factors taken into account, the study found that women are more vulnerable to front-impact crashes, even when they wear seat belts.
This was true even though people in newer vehicles (2009 and later models) are over half as likely to be seriously injured in car crashes.
Women’s and men’s bodies are different. It’s not just that women tend to be smaller and lighter; one of the study’s authors points out that women’s pelvises are usually shallower and wider than men’s. More of their tissue is found concentrated at the thighs and waist, while men’s tends to be more concentrated in the belly. There are also differences in the bones, ligaments and other tissues. And, hormonal differences could affect tissue stiffness and susceptibility to injury.
Unfortunately, he adds, not enough research has been done into those differences and what they mean.
Unrepresentative crash dummies may contribute to the disparity
Although the use of crash dummies has resulted in overall safety improvements that help everyone, they have historically been representations of men. Female crash dummies were introduced in the early 2000s, but they are usually small, representing women about 5 feet tall and weighing 110 pounds. They’re meant to represent the small end of the human spectrum, but they’re not very representative of modern women.
New, more representative and accurate dummies are being devised, but the science is still heavily reliant on bio-mechanical research from the 1970s and 1980s, much of which was done on males. It could take another decade of comparisons between crash dummy performance and real-world injuries before we have the data needed to create a truly accurate female crash dummy.
As the study author notes, it’s crucial to get it right.
“If we leave things on the same course … we’re going to end up building autonomous vehicles with females have a 73 percent greater risk of injury, too.”