Crash-test dummies are undergoing a makeover to reflect the thicker waistlines and larger rear ends of Americans.
“Studies show that obese drivers are 78 percent more likely to die in a car crash,” said Chris O' Connor, CEO of Humanetics, the only U.S. producer of the dummies.
O’Conner said crash-test dummies are now typically modeled after a person who weighs about 167 pounds with a healthy body mass index. His company is designing new dummies based on the measurements of a 270-pound person with a BMI of 35, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other health groups, consider morbidly obese.
O’Conner said seat belts, air bags and other safety features are designed for thinner people and don’t fit heavier people the same way.
“Typically you want someone in a very tight position with their rear against the back of the seat and the seat belt tight to the pelvis,” O’Conner explained. “An obese person has more mass around midsection and a larger rear which pushes them out of position. They sit further forward and the belt does not grasp the pelvis as easily.”
Studies indicate that such drivers are indeed at greater risk in car crashes. In 2010, researchers from University at Buffalo and Erie County Medical Center analyzed more than 150,000 car crashes in the United States and found that drivers considered moderately obese had a 21 percent increased risk of death. Morbidly obese drivers were 56 percent more likely to die in a crash, the study found.
Dr. Mark Reiter, the president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, said he was unaware of significant differences in injury patterns between thin and fat drivers. But he did say obese victims of car crashes can be difficult to treat.
"It is harder to perform medical procedures like intubations of breathing tubes and insertion of chest tubes for collapsed lungs and they may have other chronic conditions that put them at increased risk," he said, adding that sometimes neck collars and transport boards may not fit them.
"It does seem reasonable to utilize test dummies that have different body types to see if it has an impact on injury types and severity.”
Russ Raider, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a group that tests vehicles for safety and uses Humanetics dummies in its testing, said cars that perform well in crash-test ratings are designed to protect people of all sizes.
"There certainly is a place for heavier crash-test dummies,” he said. “For example, engineering more robust restraint systems such as seat belts and airbags.
“However, all of the improvements we’ve seen in safety of vehicles over the last couple of decades are allowing people to walk away from crashes without serious injuries regardless of size."
Humanetics‘ O’Conner said it’s unclear whether heavier passengers are also in greater danger but he said he assumes so. He also said the data used to create the new dummies indicated that obese women drivers had double the risk of becoming a fatality compared with obese men.
With more than 70 percent of Americans now either overweight or obese, according to the CDC, O’Conner said the death risk for obese people in cars is a serious problem that must be addressed.
“We need to find a way to make cars safer for everyone, regardless of size,” he said.
The heftier Humanetics dummies will go into trial usage by the end of this year and become available for wider use sometime next year, O’Conner said.