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The Auto Industry and Petite Women

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According to MSN.com Autos, the 2007 crop of automobiles will be safer for women. Why? Automakers are going to consider the safety of petite women when they design airbags.

Finally…it only took about 20 adult deaths in the US. Most of these were women of short stature and one third were elderly women. The media attention was really on the deaths of young children who were sitting in the passenger seat. That's important, of course, however, automakers would have uncovered the problem if they had considered all drivers, if they had considered that women of all sizes and ages drove cars.

The 2004s are the first vehicles required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin phasing in new, smarter, gentler airbags designed to minimize the risk of injury and death to front-seat riders during a crash.

While some automakers already have been adding the so-called advanced airbags in recent years to their cars, the 2004 model year marks the start of an industry-wide ramp-up of the airbags required by NHTSA.

Indeed, by the 2007 model year, all passenger vehicles are mandated to have the advanced bags that are expected to be safer for children and small-statured adults such as petite women.

Frontal airbags began appearing in a small number of new cars in the 1970s and by the mid-1980s were a growing feature. They were not required by NHTSA until the 1997 model year, following years of debate.

Safety is a good thing, but not when it ignores both children and smaller adults. I'm not talking about dwarfs, although their needs should be considered as well. I'm talking about women who might even be too tall to be considered a dwarf and not afflicted with dwarfism.

NHTSA noted frontal airbags' life-saving potential, saying that the lives of more than 5,300 people had been saved by airbags in the 14 years between 1986 and March 2000. The federal agency estimated at least 2,400 people annually would be saved in car crashes once all vehicles on the road had frontal airbags.

The real-world data also showed a troubling problem. More than 150 people, most of them children, were killed by airbags, often in low-speed crashes, according to NHTSA statistics.

The reason: Frontal airbags had been designed to meet government requirements to provide protection for a 50th-percentile male who is unbelted in a car crash. Therefore, automakers had to make sure their airbags deployed quickly enough and with enough pressure to give the requisite protection for a sizable male body not held in its seat by a safety belt.

What researchers discovered was this kind of airbag could be lethal to smaller-sized people, including children, small women and the elderly in some circumstances, particularly if they are sitting too close to the airbag.

The NHTSA still advises that children 12 years old and younger not sit in the front seats. That's sort of hard when you want to drive. It's hard enough to find a car that you can drive when you're petite. Sometimes the car seat won't move up enough for me to reach the pedals. If I can reach the pedals sometimes, I can't see over the dash. Sometimes, my knees are bumping into the dashboard by the time I'm close enough.

I currently drive a Toyota Previa. I bought a 1991 model specifically because it didn't have an airbag and it was one of the few vans that a petite woman could drive. The model that preceded the Previa was not a comfortable drive — the seat cut off the circulation to my lower legs by cutting into the back of my knees.

The dashboard and the pedals were totally incomfortable and required shifting around in the seat — a sort of twisting gymnastics that should be reserved for parked sex as opposed to everyday driving or worse, during emergency reactions.

That's sort of funny because the Japanese car industry actually focused on women drivers before the American auto industry caught on. More women were working full-time and living at home, giving them a large disposable income. Yet in the US, we don't get a lot of the models offers by Japanese automakers to their domestic market — even those that would surely sell to men, such as the Figaro — a retro 1950s car with modern amenities.

I always pause and drive more conservatively in a rental, all of which have been post-1992 models, specifically because my life depended upon it, because even a low speed minor collision could have been fatal.

Perhaps the joy of driving will really be mine by 2010 — a plug-in Prius and airbags that won't decapitate me.

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About Lilly PuTian

  • Great article – Please make comments here as I believe other women frequenting the Ask Patty blog would appreciate your thoughts.

    Jody DeVere
    Automotive Advice for Women