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Super-sized crash-test dummy reflects growing American waistlines

New, large male dummy stretches envelope for height and weight

Published: December 03, 2014 04:30 PM

There’s no hiding that Americans have gotten steadily plumper over the last several decades. As a result, auto safety researchers may be welcoming a new member to the crash-test-dummy family, a rather obese male.

Developed by Humanetics of Plymouth, Mich., the largest U.S. maker of instrumented crash dummies, the big guy is six-foot-two and weighs 273 pounds. And it’s not all muscle.

Oversized dummies have been used in crash research for years, but this one is not just tall but, you know, kind of heavy.

“As we put on weight, it’s not evenly distributed,” explains Humanetics CEO Chris O’Connor. “Most of us get a lot thicker in the middle. One of the problems, as a driver, is that that puts you out of position for the seat belt. You’re sitting farther forward in the seat, and the belt isn’t pinning down your pelvis but running across your belly, and that isn’t good.”

It could be time to add a larger-statured individual to the repertoire. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates that about 35 percent of the adult male population is obese, up from just 11 percent in 1960. This obese dummy will join a line of ever-more sophisticated crash dummies currently used for automobile crash tests, ranging from a 12-month-old infant, to a petite adult female, to an average-sized (50th percentile) adult male.

See our guide to car safety.  

It’s long been recognized that plus-sized folks may fare less well in crashes than average-weight drivers, but a recent study from the University of California at Berkeley has tried to quantify the risk. It found that obese people were about 50 to 78 percent more likely to die from crash injuries than average-weight people.

According to Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Several factors raise the risk level for overweight people. For one thing, heavier people put more strain on the seat belts and air bags during a crash. And if seat belts are uncomfortable or hard to buckle, they may not be used. Obese people may also have health issues that add to their vulnerability.”

Dummies are typically purchased by automakers for internal crash testing, as well as by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for their federally funded tests.

When asked, a NHTSA spokesperson said that they were “aware” of the new dummy, “but it’s too soon to speculate on if it would ever be added to our program or family of dummies.”

IIHS’ Rader told Consumer Reports that the organization had no plans yet to purchase the new plus-size dummy.

“It’s not clear how much we would learn, since we’re more focused on the integrity of the car’s structure. If the passenger compartment stays intact then the size of the dummy doesn’t matter so much. But other researchers, especially those studying restraint systems, might be very interested.”

Cost may be an issue, too. Crash dummies run about $500,000 apiece or more, depending on how many sensors they have.

“You can have literally thousands of data channels on these devices,” Humanetics’ O’Connor said. “They’re expensive, yes, but they’re made to last for decades.”

Gordon Hard

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