WASHINGTON - The time has come for some gender equality in government crash testing.
That is the view of federal safety officials who want to start using small, female dummies in crash tests.
In its New Car Assessment Program, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration submits vehicles to frontal and side-impact crashes and awards one to five stars for the protection given to drivers and passengers. But the dummies used to measure crash impact are all of a 5-foot-8-inch, 171-pound man.
The male dummy has been the only model used since the inception of the program in 1979.
If Congress and the White House approve the funding, NHTSA will study the feasibility of adding a dummy representing a 4-foot-11, 108-pound woman in the driver and passenger positions for frontal impact tests.
'It's important to test with different-sized occupants,' said Rick Morgan, director of the crash-test program. 'We want to see if she is getting the worst of it.'
The female dummy is one of several that will be used for testing advanced airbags. The more sophisticated airbag systems, designed to protect a range of occupants, will be required by rules scheduled for adoption by March 1.
Generally, the industry has supported the use of more kinds of dummies in airbag testing, but there is less certainty about expanding NCAP.
'You do need to worry about overwhelming people with data,' said William Boehly, vice president of vehicle safety at the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
NHTSA officials also have discussed adding brake performance and rollover propensity ratings to the consumer information they provide.
While Boehly said it is 'appropriate and responsible' to use the small, female dummy in vehicle safety programs, engineers question the quality of the readings they receive from the version being certified for airbag testing.
'Let's get the foundation right,' he said.
Even if the female dummy is added to NCAP crash tests, it is unclear how results would be reported, Morgan said. Conceivably, each vehicle could wind up with a total of six separate scores of one to five stars - the four categories used now, plus two for the female dummy in each seating position in a frontal impact.
It also is conceivable that manufacturers could adapt restraint systems to get higher scores for female dummies in models that are more popular with women, agency and industry officials acknowledged.
More models tested
Morgan said the proposed feasibility study, similar to a plan floated a year ago but not adopted, is one reason the agency is seeking a doubling of funds for NCAP in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
NHTSA also hopes to boost the number of vehicles tested with the male dummy in frontal and side-impact crashes. This year, with funding of about $2.6 million, the agency will test enough models to cover about 72 percent of the cars and trucks motorists will buy. The agency wants to get the figure up to 85 to 90 percent, Morgan said.
One of the most common complaints NHTSA receives from consumers is that it doesn't have crash ratings for vehicles in which they are interested.