When I was about seven months pregnant, a young woman backed into me in a parking lot and luckily, she was driving at a slow enough speed that it didn’t jar or injure me. It scared me, though, and I hopped out of that car like a hen on fire. That experience helps me frame an appreciation for Volvo’s development of the world’s first virtual pregnant crash test dummy back in the early 2000s. Women carrying a child are rounded in new places, and the steering wheel is closer, which poses a hazard to both mom and baby in a crash.
Typically, crash tests are completed with dummies that are developed based on the size and physiology of the average male. The challenge that poses for women is that female bodies are different and have specific protection needs. The shorter a person is, the lower in the car and closer to the steering wheel they sit, which makes seating position and airbag placement a critical element of safety design.
Volvo’s approach has been to develop crash test dummies that represent the female anatomy. The company has been testing with a female crash test dummy since 1995, starting with the only available small-sized female frontal-impact dummy. The bone structure is distinctive and the way the body reacts in an accident is different for men, women, and children. Over the past 40 years, between Volvo’s crash test investigation teams and the special mannequins, the company has collected data on crash tests and how different body shapes react in various accident situations.
Professor and senior technical specialist Lotta Jakobsson at the Volvo Cars Safety Center says the extent of injuries to women from car crashes depends primarily on the car they drive.
“If you design your car well, [women] will not be at a higher risk,” she said to The Drive. “We check most body regions and we see that there is gender equality.”
Women make up a large portion of the automaker’s customer base, Volvo’s National Media Relations Manager Russell Datz told me. It puts a lot of thought into features that make the interior of its cars a pleasant and functional place to be.
Studies revealed that women are at higher risk of whiplash than men, which may be attributed to disparate anatomy features and body strength. So Volvo created its whiplash protection system, called WHIPS, which offers extra protection to the head and spine with a redesigned head restraint and seat. Volvo says with that with the system in place in all of its front seats since 2000, they no longer see a difference in whiplash risk between men and women.
Since the 1950s, Volvo has studied more than 43,000 cars in real-life accidents with 72,000 occupants. As a result, it’s gathered more than 100 research papers and shared that data through its Project E.V.A. (equal vehicles for all) for the entire industry to use for the greater good. The company’s hope is that this will lead to safer cars for everyone, regardless of gender and size, beyond the “average person” represented by crash test dummies.
Volvo has done this before, starting back in 1959 with the advent of the three-point safety harness. It’s one of the values Volvo embraces, and it’s evident in its marketing and loyalty.
This data has been used to help improve the design of its cars. Volvo claims its seats better suit people of different sizes than most—a flat backrest is important in this regard—but the data collection also led to technical innovations like its Side Impact Protection System (SIPS), which was introduced in 1991. There’s also the Whiplash Injury Protection System (WHIPS), which was first introduced on the Volvo S80 in 1998 and was fitted as standard in all Volvo’s front seats by 2000. The way WHIPS works is that it slides the front seat backward, then tilts up and into a more reclined position in the event of a rear-end collision. Imagine catching a ball in a baseball mitt to better understand the concept.
Volvo knows who and what it represents and it’s focused on safety versus the latest trends.
“Even seatbelts were controversial as recent as just 30 years ago, and now I can’t imagine many people would drive a car without a seatbelt or feel safe in one without it,” Datz told me. “It’s just common knowledge that seatbelts save lives and prevent injury. And we hope that our new technology will be the same way and people will think ‘How were there ever cars without this?’”
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