Crash Test Dummies Are Being Redesigned To Reflect America's Growing Weight

The United States comprises just 5 percent of the world' population, but claims 13 percent of the world's overweight and obese population. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington found that "nearly three-quarters of American men and more than 60 percent of women are obese or overweight." In order to reflect this growing demographic trend, car crash test dummies are being reengineered to be larger, heavier models of the average American in order to better predict how a real person in the United States will fare in the case of a car crash.

These new dummies, scheduled for release and testing in car crash simulators by the end of next year, are considerably larger than their predecessors. Today's average dummy weighs 167 pounds, but the new model will imitate the proportions of a 270-pound man with a body mass index of 35, which is considered morbidly obese. While this weight increase may seem excessive, Humanetics, the Michigan-based company that is the only American manufacturer of these dummies, believes that using unrepresentative dummies for safety testing poses a threat to US drivers. Chris O’Connor, the head of Humanetics, told WRTV, "We need to find a way to make cars safer for everyone, regardless of size."

According to O'Connor, "Studies show that obese drivers are 78% more likely to die in a car crash." This may be due in part to the fact that current seat belts and airbags are not meant to protect those who are overweight. But it may also be attributed to the fact that safety testing using smaller, lighter car crash dummies does not accurately reflect the reality of drivers and their driving situations today.

Because car crash dummies are used to simulate human reactions to "impacts, accelerations, deflections, forces and movements generated during a crash," according to USA Today, it is absolutely crucial that these tests are actually applicable to the people they are meant to protect. Crash test dummies must be used by American and European carmakers to prove that their vehicles are safe before being allowed on the road. O'Connor told the newspaper, "We're still testing with a dummy that was created in the '80s that weighs 170 pounds. It's not representative of the population, and obviously it's a much different load on the system."

These new dummies will not only be heavier, but they will also realistically represent the weight distribution amongst overweight and obese individuals. Excess weight tends to be stored in the midsection, which would greatly affect seatbelt placement in a car. O'Connor told CNN, "We get fat in our middle range. And we get out of position in a typical seat." This means that someone who is overweight will sit further forward in a seat, which makes it difficult for the seatbelt to grasp the pelvis appropriately. These new dummies, O'Connor believes, will be a more honest representation of how a large proportion of Americans actually react in a car crash.

Significant evidence supports O'Connor's claims of the differences in how differently-sized individuals are affected by various car crash situations. In 2010, University at Buffalo and Erie County Medical Center researchers examined data from more than 150,000 car crashes in the country and concluded that moderately obese drivers increased their risk of car accident-related death by 21 percent. Morbidly obese drivers increased risk by 56 percent. And obesity isn't the only determining factor in car crash scenarios — age and even gender affect the way in which the body responds to stress from these situations.

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But despite O'Connor's good intentions, some safety testers are skeptical about the necessity of differently sized, differently shaped dummies. Russ Raider, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told ABC News,

There certainly is a place for heavier crash-test dummies. 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.

At $500,000 a pop, it's no wonder that some testing sites may not want to shell out the extra money for a specially sized dummy, especially if it's not expected to make a considerable difference in test results. But O'Connor and other experts firmly believe that these new models will be crucial in keeping drivers safe. Dr. Joel Stitzel, director of the Center for Injury Biomechanics, told CNN, "The idea of these new dummies that they start to measure new types of load, (such as) shoulder loads, they interact with restraints better. They have more measurement capabilities, so they can do a better job of predicting injury."

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And as these dummies become more and more specific to certain body types, O'Connor hopes that they will further protect drivers in their cars. By 2015, O'Connor expects that Humanetics will have launched a line of elderly dummies, and petite women are also on his docket. After all, when it comes to safety, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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