PLYMOUTH, Michigan — People are getting bigger, and in response, a new line of obese crash test dummies is being developed by Humanetics to help keep the growing U.S. population safe behind the wheel.
Humanetics, the world's largest producer of the test dummies, decided to increase their size based on some — perhaps not surprising — statistics.
"Our decision was driven by the human population," Humanetics CEO Chris O'Connor told Edmunds. "At the time the current standards for crash test dummies were implemented, in the 1980s, adult obesity in the U.S. stood at 15 percent.
"Now it's estimated to be close to 40 percent. And a recent study by U.C. Berkeley found that obese drivers are up to 78 percent more likely to be injured in a crash than lighter-weight drivers. We wanted to develop a piece of test equipment that would be of practical use to NHTSA, the community and our customers, the automakers."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an "obese" person is defined as one with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30 or more. And with around one-third of U.S. residents falling into that category, O'Connor said, the dummies now being used to test automotive safety not doing a complete job.
"The current adult male dummies are 169 pounds and 69 inches tall," he said. "That's slender all the way up and down by today's standards. When they're positioned in a car, they fit comfortably back in the seat, and the seatbelts fit just right. But obese people generally don't have extra size through their whole body; they're generally bigger in the center area and backside. As a result, they sit in a car seat much differently. Our new dummies are designed to reflect the proportions of a modern person."
The obese crash test dummies will be built on the latest Humanetics platform, called THOR (Test device for Human Occupant Restraint) — the same as the current generation of standard models — but the bigger adult male version weighs 273 pounds and mimics a person with a BMI of 35. According to the CDC, that's at the upper range of the "obese" classification, just at the threshold of "morbidly obese."
O'Connor said Humanetics is looking at expanding the new line to include obese female and child crash test dummies. He also noted that elderly people have been found to be at greater risk of injuries in crashes, so the company may develop dummies to reflect that demographic, as well.
At this point, Humanetics has built its first obese crash test dummy and has completed testing at the University of Virginia. O'Connor said that he expects deliveries to customers to begin early in 2015 and that the price will be about the same as a standard model, about $500,000.
"They're expensive," he admitted, "but you have to remember that these crash test dummies last 30 or 40 years. So they can be used, serviced and re-used over a very long period of time."
Although Humanetics also produces technology that enables computer modeling of crashes, which has to some extent reduced the amount of physical testing required, O'Connor doesn't expect crash test dummies to disappear any time soon.
"In the short term," he said, "over the next 20 years, there will still be the need for physical testing. At the end of the day, computer models are good, but you need proof of what happens in a crash. Automakers have to validate their products and show how they're going to perform. Safety is so important that I think physical testing will continue for many years to come."
Edmunds says: These new crash test dummies will certainly meet an expanding need.