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Crashes Deadlier For Women, Study Finds

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Posted on July 15, 2013

A gender gap exists and it’s not based on ability to drive, but the likelihood of surviving a serious crash.

On average, women have a 17 percent higher risk than men of dying in crashes, a national study[1] shows. This is likely due to a variety of factors ranging from anatomical to technological and engineering factors such as equipment being designed to keep occupants safe without women’s bodies in mind.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study released in May analyzes crashes of cars and light trucks and vans of the past 50 model years to see how technologies introduced during that period affected the higher relative risk of injury and fatality for older motor vehicle occupants and women.

While we’ve known for a while that age plays a role in risk of fatality in car accidents as the body’s fragility (likelihood of injury given a physical assault) and frailty (chance of dying from a specific injury) increases with age, this study shows that intrinsic human anatomy and gender also affects risk.

Young adult women up to approximately age 35 have a 25 to 30 percent higher fatality risk, given similar physical insults, than men of the same age.

Fatality risk increases about 3 percent each year a person grows older starting at about 21. This rate of increase is slightly less for women than men. Gradually men’s fragility catches up. Men become frailer sooner than women as evidenced by men’s lower life expectancy. For drivers, female’s risk diminishes sharply after age 35. After their late 60s or early 70s, females are at lower risk than males the same age.

Among the key findings in the 349-page report:

  • Older occupants are vulnerable to thoracic injuries, especially multiple fractures.
  • Females are especially vulnerable to neck injuries and abdominal injuries.
    • “The high risk of neck injury appears to be related to the anatomy of a typical female: a male’s neck has greater spinal-column strength than a female’s, yet a female neck is called upon to support and control the motion of a head that is almost as large and heavy as a male’s,” the report stated.
    • “Their higher risk of abdominal injury is harder to explain . . . It is possible that the lowest part of the ribcage surrounding the abdominal organs, which is not well supported by the spine and sternum, may be an especially fragile spot in the female relative to the male anatomy.”
    • Women are not as vulnerable, relative to men, to most head injuries; and, in the front seat, to heart injuries.
    • Belted women in the back seat are more vulnerable than men to thoracic and abdominal injury possibly indicating that back-seat belts protect men better than women from these injuries.
      • Seat belts have been historically somewhat less effective for older occupants and female passengers, but more effective for female drivers, according to the study.

Seat Belts Originally Based On Male Dummy

Back in 1995 the Chicago Tribune reported that the Government Accountability Office theorized that seat belts may not fit women as well because the devices are designed primarily for men. The GAO reasoned that this was because the federal government required automakers to design systems around a 50th percentile male dummy, which represents a 165-pound male who is 5-feet, 9-inches tall.

Further, ABC Action News reported it was only a year ago when the five-star rating system to grade the crash worthiness of new cars started using crash test dummies that resembled both men and women.

Newer Technology Paves Brighter Path

The good news is that vehicles have become much safer for everybody over the past 50 model years. For example, occupant fatality risk has decreased by 42 percent from 1955-1960 to 2002 due to increased seat belt use, air bags, and other Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, analysis based on 2004 NHTSA data shows.

However, a closer look shows that the fatality risk for females relative to males of the same age grew a little bit from vehicles of the 1960s to vehicles of the late 1980s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that female’s relative risk to males shrunk substantially, perhaps to half its original level or less.

All the major safety technologies, except for the earlier belt systems for passengers, contribute to shrinking the fatality risk for females relative to males. The combination of air bags and belt use, especially belts with pretensioners and load limiters, which retract the safety belt in a crash to remove excess slack, has greatly reduced the gender gap, at least for fatality risk. Newer technologies also show potential to decrease risk of an older person relative to a younger person in the same crash situation.

Accident Statistics: Battle of the Sexes

While women may have less likelihood of surviving a serious crash, statistics show that they are less likely than men to get into a serious crash to begin with, since men, especially younger men, take more driving risks, which explains why men, especially younger men, tend to have higher car insurance rates.

Legal Help

Regardless of gender a wreck due to someone else’s negligence can be devastating. If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident due to the other driver’s negligence, please contact us.

[1] Kahane, C. J. (2013, May). Injury vulnerability and effectiveness of occupant protection technologies for older occupants and women. (Report No. DOT HS 811 766). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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