A study from the University of Virginia says women wearing seatbelts are much more likely than men to be seriously injured or killed in front-end car accidents. The reason, researchers believe, is because car safety research does not include women.
The study conducted at UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics and published by the journal Traffic Injury Prevention found that female motor vehicle passengers wearing a three-point seat and shoulder belts are 73% more likely to be seriously injured in frontal car crashes than belted male occupants.
Carolyn Roberts, a PhD student at UVA studying differences in automotive safety outcomes, told CBC News that the discrepancy between automotive safety for men and women is due to the lack of female-specific safety data.
“We are improving automotive safety, tolerance, injury and fatality risk as a whole,” Roberts said. “However, … we’re improving automotive safety for males at a faster rate than we’re improving automotive safety for females. “We’re not including females in the data analysis, in the regulatory tests, in anything we do,” she said.
Head-On Collisions and the Higher Risk to Women
A front-end car accident occurs when the forward-facing section of a vehicle collides with something, such as a tree or another automobile. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) describes its front-end crash test scenario as:
“You are heading south on a two-lane road while another vehicle is driving north on that street. The driver in the other vehicle starts to fall asleep at the wheel and veers into your lane. Suddenly, you collide head-on with the northbound vehicle.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says a frontal crash is the most common type of car accident resulting in traffic deaths.
In a head-on collision between two vehicles, the weight and momentum of both vehicles combine to magnify the force of impact. In a head-on collision at high speed, a catastrophic injury or death is almost certain. Regardless of advances in car safety, some collisions will leave vehicle occupants with serious or fatal injuries.
Vehicle size makes the biggest difference in a head-on collision, according to a study at Indiana University. With other factors being equal, a person driving a passenger car is 17 times more likely to die than the driver of a light truck. The ratio is about nine times for a passenger car colliding with an SUV.
Passengers and drivers are more likely to survive a head-on collision in a newer vehicle and/or a vehicle with a higher mass, such as a sport utility vehicle or light truck, the IU study says. Other factors linked to improved survival rates include using a seatbelt and having an airbag deploy and being younger and being male.
The IU researcher said his results, published in 2014, showed that more women die in head-on collisions, but he could not explain why.
The UVA study found that, while male drivers have traditionally been seen as more likely to be involved in car accidents, “there has recently been a trend toward an equal crash involvement rate between males and females.”
The greater risk of injury among women in car accidents may be due to their smaller size and the simple fact that women are built differently.
“Things like differences in fat distribution, differences in muscle strength, differences in bone alignment, the pelvis is different. There are just a huge number of things that suggest that females are not smaller males,” Roberts said.
UVA study authors said:
- The difference in front-end car accident risk of injury between men and women is greatest for injury to the lower extremities (knee-thigh-hip region and the ankle).
- The odds of sustaining a serious to fatal injury in a year 2009 or newer motor vehicle model are 55% less than in older vehicles.
- Safety features in newer vehicles mean all occupants in a crash are less likely to suffer skull fractures, cervical spine injury, abdominal injury or injury to the lower extremities.
- Risk of injuries to the arms and hands has not changed.
- Injuries to the sternum (breastbone), ribs, arms and hands were the most common injuries in both the older and newer models of cars.
- Vehicle occupants age 66 and older continue to be particularly susceptible to chest injuries, likely because of the increased fragility of the ribcage with advanced age.
The study authors analyzed crash and injury data compiled from the National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System for the years 1998 to 2015. The data included nearly 23,000 police-reported front-end crashes involving more than 31,000 vehicle occupants, and a nearly equal number of women and men, UVA Today said. Pregnant women who were past the first trimester were not included.
Why Do Car Safety Features Protect Women Less?
Researchers told CBC News that the lack of female-specific safety data is due to crash-test dummies that are modeled after male passengers.
The IIHS, which conducts 60 to 70 crash tests per year, still uses crash-test dummies developed in the 1970s and modeled on the physique of military men of the 1960s.
“So, it’s a very fit-shaped male,” said Becky Mueller, senior safety engineer for the IIHS in Ruckersville, VA.
New crash-test dummies, which are equipped with as many as 150 data-collection points, take a long time to develop and are expensive.
The few female dummies available, such as the Hybrid III 5th Female used at both the University of Virginia and the IIHS, are essentially just smaller versions of the male dummy and don’t reflect the many anatomical, physiological and genetic differences between men and women, researchers at both organizations said.
“Until we understand the fundamental biomechanical factors that contribute to increased risk for females, we’ll be limited in our ability to close the risk gap,” said Jason Forman, a principal scientist with the Center for Applied Biomechanics in UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
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