Equality in Design and Safety: Women and the Automotive Industry
How women’s safety can be better represented by designers in the automotive industry.
After coming across a retweet from Erika Hall of an article on The Guardian’s website, I began falling into a rabbit hole of curiosity. As a UX Design student, I follow many designers and continually work to broaden my horizons in all aspects of design. Design ethics and responsibilities is a topic I take very seriously, and naturally find myself drawn to these issues in an attempt to be a more responsible, inclusive designer.
The article, written by Caroline Criado-Perez, contained excerpts from her book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men . The part of the article that caught my attention was the section on automobile safety regulations and the usage of Crash Test Dummies.
These Crash Test Dummies, originally created in 1949 to test aviation ejection seats, were based on the 95th percentile of the average adult male in the U.S. Although there have been revisions which have changed the standard dimensions to the 50th percentile average adult male, there aren’t too many people thinking about the other half of the equation: women. In fact, it took almost 60 years to create a pregnant test dummy, and about 40 years to create child and infant sized crash dummies with the appropriate proportions.
It’s 2019, I do not give a pass to anyone that attempts to eliminate the need to consider an entire gender that operates in today’s society. Even in 1949, a year after the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights, the US Army didn’t technically have a pass on creating male only dummies, but the 40s and 50s were a different time and I would have hoped that we could have progressed a little more since then.
“The goal is to make everyone in cars as well protected as possible,” Astrid Linder
The History of Women in Vehicles:
Since the early 1900s, women have been a part of the automobile industry. From as early as 1909 we see women like Alice Ramsey, who was the first woman to drive across the United States. Charles Kettering came along in 1912 and with his design, abolished the female-deterring crank start on the automobile. Even Henry Ford hired widows and single women, offering to pay them equal wage as men in the factories. In 1943, Helene Rother became the first female automobile designer. Although she was only an interior stylist for General Motors, she still played a huge role in welcoming women into the primarily male dominated field of design for the automobile.
Now why is it that since the inception of the automobile, we see men and women involved and participating towards their common goals, but the single most important aspect of automobile design removes women from the equation? Why is it that from day one, all crash test dummies for automobiles have been set on male dimensions when history shows just how involved women have been in the evolution and culture of automobile design?
Let’s think about it shall we?
One crash test dummy with one set of proportions decreases the amount of variables in not only the design phase and the prototyping phase, but also the testing phase. The testing phase of creating a model of automobile is incredibly expensive, albeit the most important factor, to designing what can literally be described as a leather trimmed high-speed metal bomb flying across a motorway at 120 km/h. Quite frankly, in this day and age, we should not be having this issue. Men, women and children should all be equal factors in safety standards and design regardless of external cultural beliefs.
Fast forward almost a century after the first crash test dummy, and enter Astrid Linder. Linder is a member of ADSEAT in the EU and a member of the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute (VTI). She began looking at research on the problem that sits under the noses of all ethically responsible automobile designers and testers. Linder devoted her time and research into the Female Crash Test Dummy, and how automotive safety standards and designs were automatically centred around men due to the lack of a female dummy design to compare and contrast research. Linder found that new cars with whiplash protection were designed with only male dimensions in mind. With crash test dummies only being male, it’s only obvious to see the direction and progression of research following this design. (Source: Eikeseth, 2013)
“I saw information in the injury statistics showing that men were better protected from whiplash in the new systems and that women were still at higher risk,” she says. “The goal is to make everyone in cars as well protected as possible,”
Criado-Perez touches on Linder’s research in her article, saying:
“She [Linder] ran through EU regulatory crash-test requirements. In no test is an anthropometrically correct female crash-test dummy required. The seatbelt test, one of the frontal-collision tests, and both lateral-collision tests all specify that a 50th-percentile male dummy should be used. There is one EU regulatory test that requires what is called a 5th-percentile female dummy, which is meant to represent the female population. Only 5% of women will be shorter than this dummy. But there are a number of data gaps. For a start, this dummy is only tested in the passenger seat, so we have no data at all for how a female driver would be affected — something of an issue you would think, given women’s “out of position” driving style. And secondly, this female dummy is not really female. It is just a scaled-down male dummy.”
How does this affect women?
Clearly, someone or some group of people in the chain of command in major crash test safety boards has determined that the need for separate female and male dummies (and testing of female dummies in the driver’s seat) are non-issues. But what does that mean for women involved in Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVA’s)?
Post MVA, Whiplash and Chronic Pain
A study from Nottingham Trent University goes into detail about cervical spine injuries and motor vehicle accidents with women.
They report that the study of crash and insurance data illustrates that women are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a soft-tissue related neck injury, not only in rear impacts but also front and lateral impacts (source). In the study they also note that in the FEA Model (as previously mentioned by Criado-Perez) is a scaled down male model, without the musculoskeletal differences noted in the female anatomy. The study noted that women’s vertebra are more slender, they have a higher head mass, as well as a higher C5 rotation in their spine compared to their male counterparts.
Despite all these factors, there are other determining factors as to why women are at a much higher risk in rear-end collisions. First, women are considered “out of position” drivers as they tend to sit upright and closer to the steering wheel in an attempt to improve their access to the pedals. Women often drive with less space between their torso and the steering wheel for this reason too, which puts them at higher risk of death during deployment of the steering column airbag. Women also weigh less with different distributions in muscles and fat, and have a lower bone density than the average male. These factors makes many seats unsuitable for women, although since driver’s seat testing is almost entirely done on male proportioned crash test dummies, this often goes overlooked. Linder’s research shows that due to the firmness of the seat, women are catapulted forward into the seatbelt due to their lighter frame and different weight distribution. This causes the hyperextension of the cervical spine and neck, causing a torsion or whiplash injury.
Yet despite multiple studies and observations, there is minimal change to automobile safety standards. You can even see this for yourself by performing a simple video search. Look up crash tests from the IIHS on YouTube and you will find that every single dummy used for the tests in the driver’s seat is a male dummy. All occupants in the back seat are children or infants, and if there is a female dummy used, you will see her (if you ever do see her) in the passenger seat. Despite having the headpiece of the seat moderately adjustable, there is no way to adjust the overall height and firmness of the seat to account for a smaller proportioned driver.
Although statistically women still drive less than men do, they make up just shy of 50% of the drivers on the road according to USA Today. That’s almost half the driving population operating cars with safety standards not entirely met for their body’s needs.
As designers, it’s important that we consider all of our users from research to prototyping and following through to testing. I hope over time the auto safety industry follows a path to more equal representation in their testing procedures.
Look, I’m not saying we should have a hundred different crash dummies to test on, and I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here. All I’m saying is if women have different musculoskeletal structures and operate vehicles just as much as men do, shouldn’t they be represented as a part of the testing process too?
Just as women and men are equal in many aspects of society, the concept of equality should continue to be pushed and emphasized in the automobile safety industry so that all drivers can continue to be safe behind the wheel.
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