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Fatal flaw: Buttigieg’s inaction means women’s lives are at risk

This Women's History Month, it's time to prioritize women's safety

A crash test dummy sits inside a Toyota Corolla during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on, Jan. 10, 2017.
A crash test dummy sits inside a Toyota Corolla during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on, Jan. 10, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

We’ve all seen the videos, in commercials or online, of crash testing. In a testing facility, a car hurtles towards a barrier with crash test dummies inside as engineers test for the impact of a crash.

But there is a problem that we likely would not notice at first glance: these dummies and tests are based on men’s bodies, and men’s bodies only. It might seem unusual to think of an inanimate dummy as male, but it’s a basic physical representation of the way men’s bodies are shaped, the way weight and muscle are distributed, their average height. All this is fine for testing how men might fare in a car crash. But it’s extremely dangerous to women.

Women’s bone density, average height, and weight distribution is different. When a car collides, it’s not just metal meeting metal — it’s also who is inside the car, and injuries to their bodies. The current testing regimen doesn’t account for the fact women’s bodies are more vulnerable, bear different stresses, or react in distinct ways upon impact.

Recent studies reveal that women are 73 percent more likely to be injured and 9 percent to 28 percent more likely to be killed in car crashes compared to men. These are not mere statistics; they are lives lost, families shattered, dreams cut short. And yet, the crash test dummies and tests currently required by the government — the very tools designed to protect everyone as they travel — fail to account for these basic physical differences.

What’s worse is that the Department of Transportation knows about this risk, and repeatedly and stubbornly refuses to act, despite Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s stated commitment to prioritizing this policy.

Exactly one year ago this month, the Government Accountability Office issued a stern recommendation: DOT must step up its game. GAO urged the department’s auto safety agency to develop crash tests that include dummies that accurately represent both men and women. But there has been no progress. Members of Congress have echoed our frustration. This rule is long overdue.

It is far past time for a few wrongs to be righted. Women must be tested in the driver’s seat, not just in the passenger seat as they currently are – it’s not the 1950s anymore. And the dummies have to be accurate and account for women’s bodies.

The most common pushback from the Department of Transportation is the myth that this has not been sufficiently researched. In fact, studies have flagged this risk for decades. And in that time, a dummy called the THOR-5 that accurately reflects women’s bodies was developed, thoroughly researched, and proven to be true to women’s anatomy. And no argument about the need to do more dummy research excuses the fact that there is no test for females in the driver’s seat.

Another argument from bias apologists would have us believe that the gap between female and male crash safety will narrow as newer cars with more technology make up a larger share of the nation’s vehicle fleet. But the object here isn’t to make women’s and men’s crash numbers equal – the object is to give women equal tests and equipment, so that they can be made as safe as women should be.

The male is not the baseline for measuring women’s safety. We may find, when equal testing takes place, that women’s fatality rates should have been below men’s this entire time. In any case, women deserve to know whether the five-star crash rating they see on their new car applies to them. Right now, these ratings apply to males only.

At this point, the government is researching this to death – quite literally. More than a thousand women die needlessly on average every single year because they are not protected.

This Women’s History Month, it’s time for Buttigieg and DOT to finally prioritize women’s safety.

Susan Molinari served in Congress for five terms representing the New York City-based 13th and 14th districts, and was quickly elevated by House Republicans to serve in leadership. She later served as Google’s vice president of public policy for the U.S., Mexico, Latin America and Canada.

Beth Brooke retired as the global vice-chair for public policy at EY and a member of the firm’s global executive board. During the Clinton administration, she worked in the Department of the Treasury, where she was responsible for all tax policy matters related to insurance and managed care. Together, they are the co-chairs of VERITY Now, a nonprofit dedicated to equality in transportation safety.

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