Under Biden, will regulators finally get serious about car safety for

As a woman and car-accident survivor, glaring gender-based inequities in car safety are devastating. More than 1,300 American women die annually from preventable injuries in car crashes. Inadequate and male-centric design and testing practices are to blame. Now, there may be hope—but only if we can hold the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration accountable.

Between decades of missed deadlines, neglected consumer complaints, and ignored congressional directives, the NHTSA is failing us. This reactive regulatory body often only acts when forced.

The U.S. agency charged with setting motor vehicle safety standards missed its mandatory deadline for conducting reviews 87.5% of the time, and its engineers lack training, a federal watchdog report said last month, and may be noncompliant with federal laws about safety reviews. A recent AP report found that 400 lives would have been saved in 2018 alone if the NHTSA implemented the rear-seat safety warning they were required to in 2012. From 1998 to 2000, NHTSA received 2,498 complaints about a Firestone tire malfunction. They didn’t act until August 2000, after the deaths of 271 passengers. Between February 2003 and 2014, two complaints a month were sent to NHTSA about faulty ignition switches in GM vehicles. After 260 complaints, 124 deaths, and 11 years, they acted.

The pattern repeats itself—consumer reports neglected, congressional rulings disregarded, and consumers dying. The inaction from NHTSA, in spite of lawful requirements, is killing us.

Recent developments do offer reasons for hope of improvements. In October, President Biden announced the appointment of Steven Cliff to acting director of NHTSA; the agency hasn’t had a confirmed director since 2016. As the former deputy administrator of NHTSA, Cliff’s impressive CV supports his stated goals for holding car companies to more ambitious climate standards, as well as holding autonomous vehicles makers to account.

Meanwhile, deep in the infrastructure bill lies Section 24221, which includes new guidelines for automotive safety, including reports on whether current test dummies are designed to accurately reflect physical and demographic characteristics of people who ride in cars—including women. Authored by Michigan’s Sen. Gary Peters, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

However, for an agency with a habit of ignoring inconvenient lawful requirements, this is not enough.

Unstated in the forthcoming plan of the new NHTSA is any concrete promise to address the gender-based safety disparity. Data repeatedly show women at higher risk of injury and death in car accidents—the most famous study found women had a 17% higher chance of death and a 73% higher chance of injury than men. Research presented at a recent NHTSA symposium found women to be at a 20% higher risk of death in a near-side crash, and the average-sized American woman to be at a far higher risk of severe chest injury than previously suspected. NHTSA has long known of the disparity. Why wait any longer to address it?

The cause of this disparity is well known to NHTSA. Without a representative female dummy, neither car design nor car safety tests accommodate women. The government has been aware of this since at least the 1980s, and has made meager intermittent attempts to fix it. At the same research symposium, NHTSA presented their evaluation of Humanetics’ THOR-05 F dummy, the world’s most representative female dummy to date. The presenters argued that although the THOR earned a far higher level of biofidelity than the current standard dummy, Hybrid IIIF, it was not ready and would require years more research.

THOR-5F [Image: Humanetics]

The biofidelity score THOR-05 received from the NHTSA in November 2020 was “good.” This was the same that the male version, the THOR 50, received before it was approved for use in crash tests. Why does THOR-05 require more testing if she’s already far more accurate than the current female dummy, and at least equally as representative as the male? In July 2018, Humanetics delivered three THOR-05 dummies to NHTSA, and shortly after began “volume production.” Why haven’t these yet been incorporated? Throughout the entirety of the NHTSA presentation, there was no mention of where in the car the female dummy would sit. Will they ever require her to be tested in the driver’s seat?

For the record, governmental standards are not required for car companies to prioritize safety for consumers. It is not impossible for American car companies to take the initiative—20 vowed to include automatic emergency braking in all of their vehicles by September 1, 2022, and 10 have delivered. Although, given the history of negligence, it is unlikely American car companies will suddenly prioritize women’s safety over the status quo.

I recently spoke with Volvo senior technical specialist Lotta Jakobsson, who discussed the company’s more equitable safety testing. Volvo designs with dummies currently on the market, as well as with the EvaRid mid-sized female dummy and a virtual pregnant dummy. It also scales all of its crash tests proportionate to the most vulnerable passenger. Volvo cars, according to research conducted and shared publicly for five decades, see equal injury and fatalities among all consumers. All designs implemented in Volvo cars are available to American car companies, too—including the revolutionary side airbag design that accommodates drivers of any height.

“We have never needed the regulations to drive the safety forward,” Jakobsson said. “Instead, we have driven some things in the regulation…many of the test procedures are actually a result of us inventing things that were needed in the real world.” (Volvo also originally introduced the seatbelt in 1959; it took almost 10 years for it to be implemented by the U.S. government.) Car companies can make the changes to make cars safer by themselves. Governmental action has, however, historically been required to force carmakers’ hands.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s mission is “to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes” As a car-crash survivor and a woman, I cannot help but feel betrayed. I hope a successful Senate appointment of a more permanent leader like Steven Cliff will make a difference. And safer automatic vehicles and reduced emissions will help everyone on the road. But in the race to infuse the NHTSA with new ambitions and regulations from the infrastructure bill, please don’t forget about women’s safety.

Maria Kuhn is studying political science and psychology at Columbia University. Since recovering from a head-on car accident in December 2019, Kuhn has authored articles and lobbied government officials to make cars safer for girls and women.