Democratic lawmakers push U.S. Transportation Secretary for faster changes to crash test dummy standards

Letter asks for equal use of male and female dummies, updated technology in safety tests
Published: Mar. 14, 2022 at 12:24 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (InvestigateTV/Gray DC) - More than five dozen lawmakers want the leader of the Department of Transportation to step in and address the gender gap in vehicle safety.

A group of 66 members of Congress, led by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 15 asking him to unilaterally update federal crash test processes and equipment to not only use the most updated equipment, but to make sure male and female crash test dummies are used equally.

They’ve asked Buttigieg to step in and “transition to the latest generation of crash test dummy technology for both male and female occupants” as well as require that male and female dummies be used equally in both the tests that determine a vehicle’s 5 Star Safety rating and in those used during the manufacturing process.

“It is time for women to get parity when it comes to protecting us for the same kinds of hazards that men face,” Rep. Schakowsky said in an interview about the letter.

InvestigateTV first looked at the gender disparity in May 2021 and found not only does research show female drivers are more likely to be severely injured or killed in a crash compared to a male driver, but also that the federal testing for vehicle safety often used in vehicle advertisements strongly favors males.

A screenshot from a NHTSA document shows how female drivers are online in 1 out of 3 main...
A screenshot from a NHTSA document shows how female drivers are online in 1 out of 3 main tests for 5-Star Safety Ratings.(NHTSA)

As it stands, the New Car Assessment Program, which determines 5 Star Safety ratings, does not use a female dummy in the driver’s seat for front or side impact tests. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 80% of fatal crashes in 2019 were front- or side-impact.

Section 208 of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which includes the passenger occupancy tests that vehicles are subjected to during the design and manufacturing phases, puts female dummies in the driver’s seat in only six out of 14 tests.

NHTSA and the Government Accountability Office and are already on the clock for this issue – a provision in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires the two agencies to research and report on federal use of crash test dummies within a year – but the lawmakers, all Democrats, want Buttigieg to act sooner to make sure testing represents drivers equally.

“It always should be thought about if there are going to be tests, if there is going to be research done, then we need to make sure that gender equity is considered,” Schakowsky said.

Private companies have developed advanced crash test dummies to better simulate male and female drivers and are in use in Europe and Asia but not by NHTSA.

Chris O’Connor, president and CEO of Humanetics – one of the manufacturers of crash test dummies – said the U.S. is behind despite commissioning the research and development for the latest technology: a more biofidelic dummy known as “THOR.”

“We’ve been holding on this advanced technology for 10 years,” O’Connor said in an interview with InvestigateTV after the letter was announced.

“Originally, the U.S. in 2015 said they would introduce this most advanced crash test dummy by 2019. It’s 2022. And there’s still no definitive plan in place.”

In early March, NHTSA announced a public comment period to consider updates to the NCAP. Included in the proposed changes is, “Establishing a Roadmap for NCAP,” which according to the document is the first time NHSTA will create such a strategic plan for the program. It is also a requirement that was included in the same bipartisan infrastructure law requiring an evaluation of gender disparities in crash testing.

The proposed roadmap states that in 2022-2023, NHTSA will propose introducing the THOR-50M, the new THOR dummy representing the “average” male driver, into the NCAP. That will happen, the plan states, after the THOR and its counterpart from another company are adopted into the FVMSS. According to Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs records, that effort is still in the proposed rulemaking stage.

The public comment period for updates to the NCAP will run through May 9, and comments can be submitted online or by mail.

InvestigateTV contacted the Department of Transportation for an interview with Secretary Buttigieg or a response from his office, but instead received an emailed statement from a NHTSA spokesperson.

In the statement, NHTSA said safety and equity are top priorities for the agency, citing “recent data” that use of the current male and female dummies has reduced fatalities, attributing this to vehicles being tested for a “wide range of occupant sizes.”

“The data indicates that current regulations and NCAP have improved safety for all vehicle occupants and appear to have also significantly reduced gender disparity in crash outcomes,” the spokesperson wrote.

While the response did not address the letter from lawmakers, it did reference the bipartisan infrastructure law.

“NHTSA continues to examine data to evaluate remaining gender disparities in fatality and injury outcomes and to determine how to eliminate them. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will allow NHTSA to accelerate research to evaluate remaining gender disparities in fatality and injury outcomes and determine how to eliminate them,” the spokesperson wrote.

Given it’s been more than a decade and changes are still languishing in the bureaucratic process, O’Connor, the Humanetics CEO, said there needs to be more urgency from both NHTSA and the transportation department at large.

“The difference [in technology] is cataclysmic,” he said. “If you think about it, the current crash test dummy that’s being used today is like all of us walking around even before a Motorola flip phone. The technology has advanced so much, but yet the way we measure these sophisticated vehicles in a crash test dummy has really remained unchanged.”

Schakowsky said she and the 65 other lawmakers who wrote to Buttigieg hope the secretary will recognize that urgency and act unilaterally.

“He can make this happen. Short of that, I suppose we could go to the legislature, but that’s a much more cumbersome process,” she said. “That’s why we are asking him to take the leadership role and to act on this quickly. There’s just too much at stake: There’s too many lives, there’s too many injuries and so we need to address this problem.”