Obese crash test dummy, image courtesy Humanetics

Obese crash test dummy, image courtesy Humanetics

In a CNN video, Nick Glass calls the crash test dummy “one of the unsung heroes of our time.” The dummies have been used in thousands of test crashes to help manufacturers make vehicles safer. And now, because more Americans than ever are obese, crash test dummies have to follow suit, according to news reports.

The United States’ “ever-expanding waistline has … made it more difficult for traditional crash test dummies to properly model how car passengers’ bodies will react during an auto accident,” writes Roberto A. Ferdman for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Therefore, Humanetics, the company that makes most of the crash dummies used to test cars in the U.S. before they go to market, is developing a new, heftier dummy “to better mirror the U.S. population,” Ferdman writes. He reports that Humanetics, whose headquarters are in Plymouth, Mich., is at work on a dummy that weighs more than 270 pounds and has a body mass index (BMI) of 35.

Crash test dummies have played a large role in vehicle safety, Keiron Monks writes for CNN. Monks quotes Chris O’Connor, Humanetics’ CEO, as saying that the newest generation of dummies can have more than 130 channels of information, four or five times the amount of data than they had years ago. The first automotive crash dummies were developed between 1950 and 1970, based on aerospace models, according to humaneticsatd.com. When they were first created, they were made of “wood, rope, and sandbags,” Glass says in the CNN video. But over the years, the dummy has become more human-like, says Humanetics’ Conrad Logan in the video.

In an article published last month in Crash Test Technology International, O’Connor suggests that an obese crash test dummy will help vehicle makers better assess vehicle safety, because obese vehicle occupants are 78% more likely to die in a car accident than a person of average weight. That is because as people get older, they gain weight in their middles and get out of position in a typical car seat, O’Connor said.

The prototype of the obese dummy was introduced in August for evaluations, O’Connor said in the CTTI article, in which he also talked about plans to introduce elderly crash test dummies. “Elderly occupants are statistically more likely to be seriously injured in any given accident and sustain injuries and die in low-impact crashes than younger occupants,” O’Connor said. Monks reports that, although it is challenging to replicate age in a crash test dummy, Humanetics expects to have a prototype of the older ones by 2015.

Despite crash test dummies‘ contributions to vehicle safety, Dr. Joel Stitzel, director of the Center for Injury Biomechanics, told CNN that the industry is moving towards eventually replacing them with computational modeling. “[A]uto manufacturers are looking to develop virtual scenarios they can run on computers … which allow them to look at more specific anatomy,” CNN quotes Stitzel as saying. Those techniques make it possible for manufacturers to see beyond what dummies can tell them, Monks writes, adding that it is easier to create a virtual obese or elderly dummy model than an actual 3D version.

Europe is already testing the virtual systems, which are initially expensive but provide value on an ongoing basis, Monks writes. The crash test dummies themselves can cost $500,000 each.

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