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The first female crash test dummy has only now arrived

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here's a fact. Since the 1970s, crash test dummies have been used to test for car safety. And here's another fact. Those dummies are modeled on men, only men - average male build, average male weight. Sometimes, in lieu of a female dummy, researchers use a smaller version of the male one, about the size of a 12-year-old girl. Well, a team of Swedish engineers is working to change this. Astrid Linder leads the team. She joins us now on the line from Sweden. Hi there. Welcome.

ASTRID LINDER: Hi there.

KELLY: What's the difference from the male dummy?

LINDER: First of all, the height and weight. And also, this model has - is developed specifically for low severity rear impact. So we have a very strong focus on on how the torso looks like. And there we have some geometrical differences between males and females, but we also have differences in joint stiffnesses. And females have less muscles and with a lower total strength, which correspond to a lower stiffness between the joints.

KELLY: We do have data on how women's injuries in car accidents may differ from men's. What is some of that?

LINDER: Yeah, the biggest difference is when it comes to, like, whiplash injury from low-severity crashes. And there we know since the late '60s that females have a higher risk of these injuries than men. But we also know from higher-severity crashes that females have a higher risk of severe injuries as drivers in frontal impacts.

KELLY: Have you been able to run tests yet with the new female dummy you have developed?

LINDER: Yeah, we have run tests both with the male and the female because they come as a pair, of course.

KELLY: What have you found?

LINDER: We did test with different seats, and there we found that you could get quite different performances of the different seats depending on if it was the male or the female that were in these seats. Some seats are very robust, and others were less robust.

KELLY: And in what ways? I'm just trying to understand exactly what you're finding with this new dummy. When you say some were more robust, how so?

LINDER: Yeah. When you look at loading to the neck, you would look at how the head moves relative to the torso dynamically. So it's a rear impact where you aim to have the head and the torso as much in line with each other as possible. And that is affected by how the body interact with the seatback.

KELLY: Why has this taken so long?

LINDER: Yeah, and we're still not there yet (laughter).

KELLY: Yeah.

LINDER: I think one reason might be that in the regulatory test, it says specifically that you should test with an average male. So even if you would like as a car manufacturer to show what you have done, you cannot.

KELLY: So what is the next step? Because it's one thing to have a crash dummy that might tell us more about how a woman's body would respond in a crash. It's another thing for safety regulators to say, OK, we need to have this required for new vehicles.

LINDER: Yeah. And I think many new vehicles do provide good safety for both men and women. So the trick here is to actually assess that. So then it would require that it says in the regulation that you should use a model both of an average male and an average female. And today, the regulation tells you that you should use a model of an average male, full stop.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Astrid Linder. She's a professor of traffic safety at the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute. Astrid Linder, thank you.

LINDER: Thank you.

KELLY: So interesting. Well, I look forward to continuing to follow your work and what you find. And I'm so glad you're doing it.

LINDER: (Laughter). Yes, but thank you for reaching out. And I hope that, you know, these small things all contribute to that we will, yeah, within our lifetime, have an inclusive regulation and not exclusive regulation.

KELLY: Amen to that. Thank you very much.

LINDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Sarah Handel
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.