It's not that the government doesn't have a wealth of additional crash data applicable to women behind the wheel. But it comes from a different series of crashes designed to test whether a car meets--or doesn't meet--the minimum federal safety requirements. The test is binary: a car either passes or it doesn't. It's not like the 5-star rating," explains an auto safety expert. "There aren't any 'degrees' of safety." Cars that do not pass never make it to the consumer market.
But as unsatisfying as the data may be from a consumer standpoint, engineers already are using it improve cars' safety for women, whether drivers or passengers.
Says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "One of the reasons we started using female dummies is the way women sit in a vehicle." They tend, for example, to position their seats farther forward, to compensate for their smaller stature. "So, if you imagine a side-impact crash, where an SUV or a pickup, say, is hitting the car, the position of the woman's head is right in the center of the [side] window, where an object is likely to be coming in. The man is sitting farther back. In a 4-door car, he's getting more protection from the pillar" (the post in between the front door and the back door).
To accurately model that difference, says Rader, the Insurance Institute used a female dummy for its 2003 side impact tests. "We used a female [dummy] because of the vulnerability of women to that kind of crash." The data led to improvements in the design of side air bags, positioning them so they offer better protection to a female passenger.
Beyond this, Rader doesn't expect female dummies to play much more of a role in future safety design. "We do our own tests, different from the government's," he says. "We don't see a significant difference between females and males. In the frontal crash testing we've done, for example, we don't find one."
Seat belts and air bags, he says, have evolved to the point where they now do a good job protecting a car occupants of all shapes and sizes.
"The key takeaway for consumers," he says, "is not that women should be concerned that safety tests don't represent them. It's that you ought to buy the most crash-worthy vehicle overall that you can find. That way, you'll be getting the highest level of protection that you can, no matter what your gender."