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As drivers get fatter, so do crash dummies

December 5, 2014
On the heels of a bountiful holiday such as Thanksgiving, it probably is not a welcome reminder that Americans are getting fatter. But now comes news that also getting fatter are the crash test dummies used to test the cars Americans drive.
A Michigan company, Humanetics, has introduced a new obese dummy to reflect American’s growing size. The 273 pound dummy — officially called an anthropomorphic test device — is 106 pounds heavier than the traditional model, reflecting public health trends.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.9 percent of American adults — an estimated 78.6 million people — are obese, and Humanetics President and CEO Chris O’Connor explained that the differences in how they fit in the seat, how their different centers of gravity could translate into car crash injuries, and how seat belts and air bags work on them are enough to warrant a new dummy body type.
"The average person has changed dramatically," O’Connor said. "It was important to put out a piece of test equipment that auto companies and safety suppliers can use to decide what the best way is to restrain an obese person, since so many obese people are driving. ... It’s not just weight. It’s the question of girth at the center area." 
A University of California-Berkeley study, published in 2013, found that obese drivers are up to 78 percent more likely to die in car crashes.
 
Used since the 1980s, the traditional crash test dummy is often seen in car commercials to vividly show a vehicle’s safety level, but perhaps is best known by the talking crash test dummies in the Ad Council ads, starring the dummies Vince and Larry which say, "You can learn a lot from a dummy."
The new obese model is also 5 inches taller than the more commonly used 5-foot-9 version. The cost is the same amount as the normal-weight dummy, about $500,000, and, according to O’Connor, can be reused for decades.
Humanetics, believed to be the only designer and manufacturer of crash test dummies in the U.S., was founded in 1952 to make what were then called mannequins to test airplane ejector seats, but added car crash test dummies in the 1960s, O’Connor said. Today, the comany has 500 employees, supplies OEMs, Tier 1 safety suppliers, government agencies and medical researchers and has an estimated $125 million in annual sales.
Its dummy lineup also includes women and children of various ages. They’re made of metal bones wrapped in vinyl with rubber in certain joints and then loaded with sensors, O’Connor explained.
 
"Safety continues to evolve. A five-star rating from five years ago is probably a three-star today, because the bar goes up," he said. "We need to have safety for all body types. We want everyone to be safe."
Amanda Levitt, founder of Fatbodypolitics.com, said: "Having the ability to test cars and use crash test dummies that reflect a wide variety of body types is positive. Fat people tend not have enough space between them and the steering wheel. They’re more likely to have physical impact with the car in a car crash. 
"In contrast, thin people don’t have fat on their body to be protected from seat belts. All people are not the same size."
The UC-Berkeley study found that drivers with a body mass index of 30 to 34.9 were 21 percent more likely to die in a crash versus those with a BMI of 35 to 39.9, who were 51 percent more likely, and those with a BMI of 40 or above, who were 81 percent more likely. 
Researchers also concluded that obese women had a greater chance of dying in car crashes than obese men. 
 
 

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