WASHINGTON - An effort by federal safety regulators to improve crash tests of new cars by using a dummy of a small woman has run into a roadblock in the Senate because of auto industry objections.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who is barely 5 feet tall - is trying to rescue the proposed new tests, which would be prohibited by a little-noticed provision in the Senate's Transportation Department funding bill.
"I am concerned that this ... would prevent the public from learning how new cars would perform in crashes involving occupants of all sizes," Boxer said.
Each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crashes new cars to test their safety performances, using dummies that represent a 5-foot-8, 172-pound "average" man. The results are released to consumers through a rating system that awards up to five stars.
Women, who now buy about half of the new cars sold, pay special attention to those ratings. Marketing surveys have found them to be more safety-conscious than male consumers. But the tests on which the ratings are based might not accurately predict what will happen to many women in a crash.
Independent safety experts believe that including a 4-foot-11, 108-pound female dummy would be more representative of the real world and would encourage auto engineers to better protect a broad range of people.
"We all have learned from the recent history with air bags that we can't assume that just because a particular design is good for the average male, it is good for all occupants," said Adrian Lund, vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Designed to protect an unbelted man in a serious crash, air bags have killed small children, small women and elderly people in minor accidents.
Officials at the federal traffic safety agency said that they are not proposing to change the new-car crash tests immediately, but that they merely want to study the feasibility of adding the female dummy.
Results from other tests suggest that small women might be more prone to neck injuries than the average man, the agency told Congress.
"We were just going to run the tests as research and see how the small female dummy worked," a traffic safety agency official said in an interview. "We had planned on 14 tests this next model year using vehicles that are representative of the entire fleet."
But auto companies - which are quick to advertise the agency's top five-star rating for their better-performing models - questioned the reliability of test results on a dummy of a small woman.