A University of Virginia study revealed that women are 73% more likely than men to be seriously injured or killed in a car crash than men.
The study, which CBC News received an advance copy of, will soon be published in Traffic Injury Prevention, an academic journal with a focus on preventing traffic accident injuries.
Researchers reviewed 22,854 frontal crashes between 1998 and 2015. A total of 31,254 vehicle occupants aged 13 to 97 were examined — 49.4% of which were male and 50.6% of which were female. (Researchers excluded pregnant women past their first trimester.) All occupants were wearing a seatbelt.
Experts told CBC News that one of the major reasons why women are so much more likely to be hurt or killed in a crash is that almost no automotive safety testing uses female dummies.
“We're not including females in the data analysis, in the regulatory tests, in anything we do," Carolyn Roberts, a PhD student at the University of Virginia told CBC News.
In fact, a lot of crash test dummies are modelled after 1960s U.S. military men.
“So it's a very fit-shaped male," Becky Mueller, senior safety engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in Ruckersville, Va., told CBC News. The IIHS is a nonprofit funded by auto insurance companies with the goal of reducing motor vehicle accidents and deaths.
The IIHS conducts around 60 to 70 crash tests annually, and since the mid-1990s has performed more than 1,300. Organizations like the IIHS have relied on this standard male dummy since the 1970s.
“One factor as to why we've focused mainly on male crash test dummies is that dummies take a long time to develop and to use," Mueller said.
While they might appear simplistic, dummy creation is actually quite complex. Dummies must closely resemble real human anatomy and are built with up to 150 data points that researchers can collect information from to determine what types of trauma the body sustains in a car crash.
Female dummies do exist, but there are not nearly as many of them as there are male dummies. The University of Virginia has one — called Hybrid III — but the school’s researchers said it doesn’t accurately reflect the physical differences between males and females; it’s just a smaller version of the male dummy.
“Things like differences in fat distribution, differences in muscle strength, differences in bony alignment, the pelvis is different. There are just a huge number of things that suggest that females are not smaller males,” Roberts told CBC News.
“You have a three-point seatbelt. How does that sit on top of breasts? Does it move more easily if I lean out and now I have a more complicated chest geometry than a male? Is that problematic?”
The study did reveal that cars are actually the safest they’ve ever been. The odds of getting seriously hurt or killed in a car crash are 55% lower when looking at vehicle models from 2009 or later, according to the findings. The trouble is: that safety isn’t enjoyed equally among the sexes.
"To leave out half the population and say that they can be represented by something that doesn't really represent them is a disservice to protecting all of us in crashes," said Mueller.