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Women more likely to be seriously hurt in a crash than men; why fixing that could take a decade or more

FILE - When both wear seatbelts, women are nearly 73% more apt to suffer serious harm or die in a crash. The "why" of that has to do with ergonomics — differences in bodies and in car design. And fixing one piece of the puzzle is a slow slog.
FILE - When both wear seatbelts, women are nearly 73% more apt to suffer serious harm or die in a crash. The "why" of that has to do with ergonomics — differences in bodies and in car design. And fixing one piece of the puzzle is a slow slog.
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SALT LAKE CITY — Car crashes are especially dangerous for women drivers and passengers, who are more likely to suffer serious harm than men are. A new study from the University of Virginia has found that females in crashes are 73% more likely to be badly hurt or even killed.

Experts believe the fact that the dummies used to test auto safety are still more likely to be based on male size and shape plays a significant role in the statistic. And though more dummies patterned after females are now being used, they are based on very small, not average-size women, which could limit how well they improve overall safety for females.

Still, here's a bit of good news: Newer cars (post-2008) are designed to be more protective than older cars, so that riders regardless of their sex are half as likely to be seriously hurt in a crash, compared to those in older cars.

But the overall outlook for females, compared to males, is dismal.

The new study, published in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, includes data from 31,254 individuals involved in 22,854 frontal crashes from 1998 to 2015.

Car manufacturers started including "female" crash test dummies in 2003, but they're based on women 5 feet tall and 110 pounds. Though that choice is deliberate, in order to capture a small adult passenger and a larger adult passenger represented by the "male" dummies in collision tests, critics say it doesn't take into account other differences between men and women besides size.

When the researchers controlled for the car's model year, the person's body specifics like age, height, body mass index and more, women were still at greater risk of serious harm in a frontal impact collision, even with seat belts.

A "definitive" reason remains unknown, Jason Foreman, study author and principal scientist at University of Virginia's Center for Applied Biomechanics, told Citylab.com. But they suspect that differences in biomechanics explain it. And crash dummies don't accurately reflect the people who ride in vehicles.

Citylab author Sarah Holder wrote that "female pelvises, for example, are generally wider and more shallow than those of males, and fat is distributed differently. Females typically have more tissue concentrated around the waist and thighs, while in males it’s more concentrated around the belly."

“These differences … have the potential to change the ways that seat belts interact with the body and with our underlying skeletal structures,” Forman told her.

Becky Mueller, senior research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said revamping the dummies is not a quick process. She told Holder "it takes 20 to 30 years of biomechanical research and testing to build and fine-tune each model," so that many in use now were made using old data gathered in the 1970s and '80s, "which skewed heavily male." Even with fast manufacturing, it takes time to make sure the data on which dummies are based is realistic enough to shed light on what really happens in car crashes today.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports significant differences between average-sized men and women: An average man is 5-foot-9, weighs 197.8 pounds and has a waist circumference of 40.3 inches, while an average woman is not quite 5-foot-4, weighs 170.5 pounds and has an average waist circumference of 38.7 inches. It's worth noting how far off average that female dummy, at 5 feet and 110 pounds, actually is.

Auto manufacturers have made great strides for nearly a century in improving vehicle safe. According to Humanetics, one of the companies that designs and manufactures crash test dummies, "The fatality rate of 15.6 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in the 1930s was many times our current rate of 1.8, even though we have millions of more cars on the road today. This notable progress is due in part to manufacturers’ diligent efforts to design cars so that fewer injuries occur during accidents. Crash test dummies ... play a major role in making cars safer."