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IIHS Study Tries To Explain Women's Increased Risk Behind The Wheel, Ignores Systemic Negligence

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lays most of the blame on a preference for "smaller, lighter cars."

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Multiple studies have shown that women stand a greater chance of being killed in a car accident than men, and a significantly greater chance to be injured. A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety proposes some reasons why that’s the case, like vehicle choice. Unfortunately, it also downplays the most obvious one.

According to data referenced in the IIHS’ report, “on a per-crash basis women are 20-28 percent more likely than men to be killed and 37-73 percent more likely to be seriously injured after adjusting for speed and other factors.” This aligns with data observed in the past; the 73 percent figure may refer to this 2019 University of Virginia study.


The primary issue, as various pieces have identified before, is that cars, like most things we all use, are modeled on use by men. The industry-standard crash-test dummy that’s been around since the ’70s weighs 171 pounds and measures 5 feet, 9 inches tall. This is the “50th-percentile male” (meaning 50 percent of men are expected to be smaller or larger than it), and it’s almost always in the driver’s seat.

There is a 4-foot, 11-inch 5th-percentile female dummy, though it’s typically seated in the passenger seat (as seen above) and not required for most crash tests. In addition to being grossly misrepresentative of most women by nature, the 5th-percentile female dummy also doesn’t reflect biological differences between sexes, such as upper body muscle mass, that are critical when talking about phenomena like whiplash.


This is the core issue, and unsurprisingly, it speaks to the bureaucratic inaction to improve or modify existing standards — something that’s always hampered automotive safety. The IIHS’ report doesn’t necessarily argue against this:

Recently, the discrepancy in injury risk for men and women has prompted calls for new crash test dummies that better reflect how women’s bodies react to the forces of collisions and other changes to crash-testing programs.

However, the organization of insurance companies does grasp at other explanations for women’s increased risk:

“The numbers indicate that women more often drive smaller, lighter cars and that they’re more likely than men to be driving the struck vehicle in side-impact and front-into-rear crashes,” says [Jessica] Jermakian, [IIHS vice president of vehicle research]. “Once you account for that, the difference in the odds of most injuries narrows dramatically.”


According to the IIHS, men and women crash in minivans in SUVs “in about equal proportions.” Moving to cars, we see women are more likely to be behind the wheel, if only slightly — 70 percent versus 60 percent. Turning to pickups, the largest gap can be observed, where “...more than 20 percent of men crashed in trucks compared with less than 5 percent of women.”

I’m not saying more information isn’t helpful, but what is supposed to be gleaned from this data? That women aren’t driving enough trucks?


In attempting to control for vehicle differences, the IIHS repeated its analysis by limiting itself to “compatible” front crashes, where all vehicles involved were of a similar size and weight class and only front airbags deployed. This “considerably” reduced the disparity between injuries for men and women, but — surprise, surprise — it didn’t completely eliminate them.

Limiting the analysis to compatible front impacts flattened the disparity considerably, though women were still twice as likely to be moderately injured and a bit more likely to be seriously hurt.


Another problem, as Jermakian identified in the earlier quote, is that men are more likely to be piloting the striking vehicle in multi-car accidents, and the individual inside the car doing the hitting “is at lower risk of injury” than those inside the struck car and men, in general, drive more aggressively. From Consumer Reports:

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows that males drive more miles than females, and are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol, and not wearing a seat belt.


Again, I have to stress that having more data is always better than having less, but I can’t help but feel that the onus for injury or death is being unduly placed on women here when the lack of care in addressing the issue at a regulatory level has always been painfully obvious. Publishing your findings with the headline “Vehicle choice, crash differences help explain greater injury risks for women” fronted by an image of a lady driving a convertible Mini Cooper is an awfully reductive way of framing things.

Takeaways, then. Women, drive more trucks I guess? In fact, you should’ve been doing that from the start. Oh, and also be more negligent behind the wheel.