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Collision Division: Lawmakers cross party lines to address disparity in vehicle safety

Efforts in both the House and Senate look to modernize and equalize crash test dummies
Bills in both the U.S. House and Senate look to update crash test dummies and testing...
Bills in both the U.S. House and Senate look to update crash test dummies and testing procedures to make sure drivers are equally protected.(InvestigateTV)
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 12:28 PM CDT
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(InvestigateTV/Gray DC) - The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 38,680 people died in automobile crashes last year, meaning fatalities increased in 2020 by roughly 7%.

Despite people driving less overall because of the pandemic, this increase equates to a crash-related fatality about every 14 minutes.

Even though men make up more of those total deaths, data patterns show female drivers are more likely to be killed or severely injured than male drivers when involved in a crash.

Yet one of the most popular safety standards in the United States relies primarily on the testing of male drivers.

After InvestigateTV and the Gray Television Washington News Bureau published a report detailing the inequities in automobile crash testing when it comes to NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Program, lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill have begun efforts to make crash testing more equal — efforts with bipartisan support.

‘Simply outdated’

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., announced a bill to improve crash testing practices: the Furthering Advanced and Inclusive Research for Crash Tests Act (FAIR Crash Tests Act).

According to a press release, the act would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is a watchdog for federal agencies, to evaluate NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Program, which is part of the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

The GAO would be asked to evaluate why the programs have relied primarily on male crash test dummies in the driver’s seat for decades, despite more female drivers now on the road.

The bill also would have the GAO look at safety standards and crash test programs in other countries, such as Europe, “to evaluate options for strengthening the agency’s vehicle safety testing to reduce gender-based disparities in car crash outcomes.”

Europe’s NCAP utilizes newer crash test dummy technology that experts say better shows what happens to the human body during a crash, especially the female body. The European program also includes a rear-impact test where the U.S. does not — notable because female drivers are particularly susceptible to whiplash injuries.

The Senate bill also would require NHTSA to submit an interim report to Congress about the new technology — technology NHTSA originally commissioned in the late 1990s but has not yet integrated into its testing protocols.

“The current federal vehicle safety tests are simply outdated and need to be modernized,” Peters, who chairs the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation, said in the release about the bill.

The Senate bill will also have a companion piece of legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, (R-Fla.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-DC) — both of whom were interviewed in the original InvestigateTV and Gray DC report — along with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), announced Wednesday they are filing the House version of the Fair Crash Tests Act.

‘I wasn’t even aware of the difference’

Bilirakis also brought up the issue of male crash test dummies being used more than female during a hearing on automobile technology held by the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, which has oversight over NHTSA.

The congressman, who is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he is concerned about the dangers the discrepancy poses for women, who now make up more than half of all licensed drivers.

“I have seen recent reports where gender is not reflected during these crash safety tests,” the congressman said to the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. “I believe that physiological differences between a man and a woman must be considered to rectify gaps that may exist within the safety standards.”

Norton, who is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, reiterated the surprise about the disparity.

“I thought we were beginning to deal with sex discrimination until I found that one of the most obvious gender differences had not been noted, and this one turns out to be really seriously serious,” she said. “I wasn’t even aware of this difference until your investigation showed it existed.”

In addition to stand-alone bills, Norton said there are other avenues to get the issue to the floor, including pushing for a manager’s amendment to the INVEST in America Act, which funds highways and transit through 2026.

Norton said whatever the mechanism, she thinks it’s possible change will come quickly.

“I’m certainly optimistic because you’re bringing the issue to our attention during the period when the applicable bill is going through the House and the Senate, not in one or the off years,” Norton said, referring to the highways and transit bill. “So this is the time to do it.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Bilirakis said their team is optimistic they can move the bill through the process quickly.

No response from NHTSA

Despite additional requests for comment, a spokesperson for NHTSA declined to answer questions or make a representative available to discuss the proposed legislation and comments from lawmakers.

Lawmakers, however, said they want to see movement.

“[The FAIR Crash Tests Act] would require a comprehensive look into – and improve our understanding of – how federal vehicle safety tests impact the safety of all drivers and passengers on our roads,” Sen. Peters said in the release.

Sen. Fischer echoed his statement.

“Current crash test dummies are modeled after male bodies, resulting in incomplete safety data on the impact of vehicle crashes on women, even though women are 73 percent more likely to be seriously injured in auto crashes than men,” she said in the release. “Our bipartisan legislation would help ensure that vehicles are as safe for women passengers as they are for men.”

Chris O’Connor, president and CEO of Humanetics — a company that manufactures crash test dummies — who was interviewed in the original InvestigateTV and Gray DC report, said in an emailed statement the company is optimistic about the movement on Capitol Hill.

“After 40 years of 5-star safety tests that have focused on men in the driver’s seat, women need the support of legislators to ensure their safety is protected as much as men,” he said. “In the real world, we can’t decide who is driving, so we need adaptable restraints to offer equal protection for both women and men to eliminate the injury and death disparity that exists today.”

O’Connor was also cited in the announcement about the Senate bill.

Adaptable restraints and other improvements have been referenced in even the most reserved evaluations of the disparity between men and women on the road.

In February, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group supported by auto insurers, released a study suggesting some of the disparity could be caused by the types of cars male drivers prefer compared to female drivers.

However, even correcting for those differences, women were more than twice as likely to sustain injuries to their lower body, and up to 70% more likely to have severe injuries.

“Changes like strengthening the occupant compartment and improving seat belts and airbags have helped protect both men and women,” IIHS vice president and study author Jessica Jermakian said in a February release. “Homing in on the risk disparities that still exist in compatible crashes gives us a great opportunity to make further gains.”

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