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As Americans Get Fatter, Crash Test Dummies Have To Get Fatter, Too

Safety first, depressing reality check second.

When auto manufacturers send a car flying into a wall for a safety test, the typical crash test dummy strapped inside weighs 169 pounds. Not so long ago, that was the average size of an adult man. Now, however, Americans have gotten so fat that the old crash test dummies aren’t accurate enough.

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Humanetics, the world’s largest manufacturer of crash test dummies, is manufacturing a new dummy with an expanded waistline to match the current state of affairs. The dummy, with a BMI of 35, weighs 273 pounds, which puts it at about the midway point for obese U.S. men.


“Adult obesity in the U.S. has gone up from 15% in 1980 to 40% now,” says Christopher O’Connor, CEO of Humanetics. “Couple that with the fact that obese drivers are 78% more likely to die in a car crash than normal-weight drivers. … That’s significant. We needed to do something.”

The dummy is carefully modeled to add pounds where they’re most likely to be, in places like the gut and butt. One reason that obese people are more likely to die in a crash is that fat midsections push drivers out of the correct position in a seat, and seat belts and airbags can’t work as well.

“The obese dummy is based on how the human population has developed over the last 35 years,” O’Connor says. “Most of that weight, statistically, is all in the midsection of the body. So we have it proportionally correct on the dummy. That way manufacturers can design seats and restraints and the entire occupant system that goes into protection around that size, because the size is important.”

The company may also develop a smaller, female-sized obese dummy (they currently have a relatively fit female dummy, based on 1980s standards). They’re also working on an elderly (non-fat) version, since older people are also more likely to die in crashes.

Though computer modeling can help car manufacturers test for a range of body types, and Humanetics makes computer models as well, they argue that physical dummies are still the best way to truly test what will happen in a crash.

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“The advantage of modeling is you can run a lot of virtual tests for very little cost to better understand the dynamics of the vehicle and what’s going to happen,” O’Connor says. “That’s cut down the total number of physical tests that need to be done. But most of us in the industry still believe that the physical tests still determine what’s going to happen.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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