Thanks to America’s Obesity Crisis, Crash Test Dummies Are Getting Larger

The mannequins’ waistlines are expanding to make cars safer for obese drivers and passengers.

(Photo: Steve Hathaway/Getty Images)

Oct 30, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

America’s obesity epidemic has claimed an unlikely victim: slender crash test dummies. The mannequin-like figures that are used to simulate a person’s car accident experience are about to pack on the pounds—and the increase in girth is all in the name of increasing automobile safety.

The new dummies will tip the scales at 271 pounds and have an obese body mass index of 35. A typical dummy currently weighs in at 167 pounds and has a healthy body mass index—a size that no longer reflects the proportions of many Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 35 percent of Americans are obese, which it defines as someone who has a body mass index of 30 or higher. As the numbers on the scale go up, the likelihood that someone can survive a crash goes down.

“Obese occupants are up to 78 percent more likely to die in a car crash than an average weight driver,” Christopher O’Connor, CEO of Humanetics, the company that makes the dummies, told Crash Test Technology International. And, he added, “having a body mass index of 35 to 39.9 percent increases your risk of death by 51 percent.”

Part of the problem is that a heavier person sits in a car’s seat differently. “Typically you want someone in a very tight position with their rear against the back of the seat and the seat belt tight to the pelvis,” O’Connor told ABC News. “An obese person has more mass around the midsection and a larger rear, which pushes them out of position. They sit further forward, and the belt does not grasp the pelvis as easily.”

This isn’t the first time the nation’s obesity crisis has forced a change in safety procedures. In December 2011 the Coast Guard was forced to raise its Assumed Average Weight per Person for passenger boats to 185 pounds, up from 160. Some boat operators have had to reduce the number of people they can fit on board, potentially lowering revenue.

While the change in size is eye-opening, it shouldn’t be a surprise, given the nation’s penchant for salt- and sugar-laden food. Unless Americans put the brakes on our portion sizes and get more exercise, we should expect crash test dummies to keep on getting bigger.