A new kind of crash-test dummy is born at Ford

Ford Motor has redesigned the midsection of child-size crash-test dummies to help carmakers invent seat belts that could protect children against abdominal injuries.

Ford F is hoping the new dummy will become the international standard for child crash dummies, helping researchers better understand the forces that act on children's bellies in an accident. Children ages 4 to 8, who typically no longer ride in booster seats, are 25 times more likely than younger children to sustain serious abdominal injuries.

Overall, fatality rates in the USA are on the decline, but abdominal injuries have become one of the most common for young children, and serious injuries can occur even in slow crashes.

The reason? Children don't have the same pelvic anatomy as adults, so their seat belts tend to ride up into their stomach area. And when children aren't sitting in booster seats, they often scoot forward to let their legs hang comfortably over the side of the seat, pushing the seat belt even higher on their stomach.

Key to Ford's redesign is a new abdominal insert for the dummy. It's made of silicon and filled with sensors that measure how much pressure is sustained during a crash. A second piece of the redesign: The hard plastic hip bones were made rounder and smoother like a child's instead of square like an adult's.

"Something that looks so simple took many years to develop," says Priya Prasad, Ford's technical fellow for safety.

Ford spent three years working with researchers at various hospitals in the USA, including the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and with seat-belt manufacturer Takata to come up with the dummy, which mimics the average 6-year-old. Researchers have known for years that the abdomen is the second-most-injured part of a child's body in accidents, after the head, and internal stomach injuries can often go undetected.

The auto industry, including Ford, has faced numerous lawsuits regarding second-row seat belts, with plaintiffs alleging auto companies continued using lap belts long after research showed that shoulder restraints prevented more injuries.

Research on children in car accidents has come a long way in the past few decades, says David Viano, a former safety researcher at General Motors and consultant at firm ProBiomechanics.

"Back in the earlier studies on child safety, one of the leading causes of injury was a hard left turn," Viano says. "If children were standing on the back seat, they'd fly out the window. So keeping them in a belt system was the biggest priority."

Now, he says, most children use seat belts, so further research will help fine tune seat-belt technology.

The easiest way to prevent these injuries today is to use a booster seat as long as possible, the safety experts say. But getting a child to stay in one once they reach school age can be difficult.

Just ask Stephen Rouhana, Ford's senior technical leader in passive safety research. He made his two children use booster seats until they were 11.

"It was hard, because the other kids would make fun of them," Rouhana said. "But they would say, 'My dad is in safety, so we have to. And you should be in one, too.' "

Fewer than 40% of children ages 4 to 7 used booster seats in 2007, according to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Booster-seat use among children ages 6 and 7 dropped to 25% in 2007 from 36% in 2006. About 15% of children ages 4 to 7 don't use seat belts at all.

Promoting booster-seat usage should be the biggest priority for safety advocates, says Phil Haseltine, former president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.

"Riding unrestrained or in the wrong restraint system are still the greatest injury threats to children," he says. "However, improved crash-test dummies can aid … vehicle manufacturers in improving future product designs."

That's what Kristy Arbogast, a doctor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, hopes will happen.

"Vehicles should be designed so the rear seats can accommodate the range of sizes that are back there," says Arbogast, who helped develop the abdominal insert for the crash-test dummies.

"What I'm hoping is that with this tool that better mimics a child's anatomy, the technology will be developed to deal with their bodies."

Contributing: Jayne O'Donnell