Equality in vehicle safety 

Equality in vehicle safety 

As has been the case historically in the personal protective equipment (PPE) industry, motor vehicle safety is rather biased against women. Just like PPE was initially designed for an average male, so too were crash test dummies (and therefore all of the insights gathered from them) based on a typically sized man … Until now.

Astrid Linder is a leading traffic safety researcher who works as a professor of traffic safety at VTI, the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, and as an adjunct professor at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology. She has designed the world’s first female crash test dummy.

“Linder coordinated the EU-funded ADSEAT project, where the world’s first virtual dummy model based on an average female for rear impact, EvaRID, was developed. Previously, crash test dummies were based on the ‘average’ male: just one example of a bias in car design that consequently put female lives at risk,” says Charleen Clarke, editorial director of SHEQ MANAGEMENT, who also represents South Africa on the Women’s World Car of the Year* jury. Clarke explains that the jury acknowledges the contribution of women in the automotive industry with its Women of Worth award, which Linder won this year. So, who better to tell her story than Linder herself?

How did your journey in road safety begin?

I studied engineering physics at Chalmers during the 90s and, after graduation, I looked for a job and found a position as a PhD student at Chalmers that caught my interest. The assignment involved developing the world’s first crash test dummy for low-speed collisions to assess the protection for soft tissue injuries of the neck: so-called whiplash injuries. At the time, there was no dummy or test for the type of collision that is the most common collision resulting in disabling injuries.

It was a big project in the 90s. The crash test dummy created was the size of an average man, as that is the model of the occupant that we use as the driver in both frontal and side impact testing.

How did the idea of creating a female crash dummy start?

As part of my doctoral studies, I did a literature review and found that women were at higher risk of sustaining whiplash injuries than men. Then it became a logical next step for me to work to design a model that represents that part of the population. Since we evaluate the protection against injuries with a model of an average man, we cannot today, in testing new cars, assess how well cars also protect the female part of the population.

How the body is constructed does not differ between men and women when you look at the big features such as skeletal parts, organs, and soft parts, except the reproductive organs which are not essential in crash safety. Differences that are important to include in models for evaluating protection against injuries in a low-speed rear-end collision are things like upper body geometry, such as shoulder width and centre of gravity of the torso, which is higher for men than women.

Today there is no possibility of assessing the protection of a new car for the entire adult population. Crash safety evaluation is done using an average man (geometry, weight, and height) as the driver, in addition to testing with child models. To represent children, we have child dummies in many different sizes. In addition, for example, Volvo has done tests with a pregnant model where the study was about how the foetus is protected. However, protection for women was not studied, as the model was not designed as an average woman. What drives me are the injury statistics that provide the basis for what needs to be developed, and to make it possible to better identify the innovations that give the entire population the best protection. The work has been going on for more than 20 years.

Below: Astrid Linder, from Chalmers University of Technology and the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute, with EvaRID: the world’s first female crash test dummy to test rear impact.

What setbacks have you encountered over the years?

The biggest challenges and setbacks over the years have related to finding research funding. My drive is that future crash tests should be done with crash dummies and tools that inclusively represent both the female and male parts of the population, so that in testing we can identify the cars that give the entire population the best protection in the event of a crash. Getting there requires more work though: in the regulations for type approval tests used in Europe (UNECE) it is clearly stated that a model of an average man must be used for roadworthiness tests. As long as it says so in the regulations, the change will not come from society’s demands. The companies follow what needs to be followed, nothing more can be required. To get ahead we need cooperation, knowledge, and will, among other things.

Together with Volvo, Chalmers University of Technology and partners from Europe have already produced a mathematical crash test dummy model of an average woman in 2012, so that virtual tests with male and female models could be performed. After this, it was widely believed that it was too difficult and expensive to develop a crash test dummy that represented the female part of the population. We managed to get funding from the EU for the recently completed project where we designed mathematical and physical models of both an average woman and man. 

How does it feel to receive the Women of Worth award?

I feel very honoured and happy that the projects are receiving attention and appreciation. Together we can make a difference. At car manufacturing facilities, there is not one person that builds a car; to make a car requires collective work and interaction with many talented people and other companies. The same applies to the development of improved safety assessment.

What does your future vision look like?

My future vision is that we improve road safety together, and that by 2030 we will evaluate crash protection for both women and men inclusively.

* The Women’s World Car of the Year is the only car awards programme in the world comprising exclusively women motoring journalists. The objective is to choose the best cars of the year. The voting criteria is based on the same principles that guide any driver when choosing a car. It is not a “woman’s car”. Aspects such as safety, quality, price, design, ease of driving, benefits, and environmental footprint, among others, are taken into account when casting votes.

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