Why Are Women More Likely to Die in Car Crashes?

It's not just that their bodies are different, the cars they drive are different too.

Safety is your responsbility

Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images

It's been known for years that women are more likely to be seriously injured or die in car crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that a female driver or front-seat passenger was 17% more likely to die than a male. Consumers Reports notes that it is commonly thought the reason is that the standard crash test dummy was based on a 5'-9" tall, 171-pound male, and that "researchers have understood since at least the early 1980s that male and female bodies perform differently in crashes."

However recent research by Matthew Brumbelow and Jessica Jermakian of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conclude that there are other factors besides the difference in bodies. The study authors looked at data from front crashes and side crashes and found that women had a far lower rate of crashes per licensed driver. However,

"Males are involved in more crashes involving risk-taking behaviors such as speeding and impairment and tend to be involved in more severe crashes overall, but after adjusting for crash severity and other factors, studies show females are at increased risk of fatal injury compared with males. In double-pair comparison studies, young females have an increased fatality risk of 20 to 28% compared with young males in similar crashes."

A major factor is that men and women drive different kinds of vehicles.

distribution of vehicle types
Look at the pickup trucks.


Women drive more regular cars, vans, or SUVs, but men dominate the pickup trucks. Even within the same class of vehicles, "males tended to be in heavier vehicles than females."

"Men and women crashed in minivans and SUVs in about equal proportions. However, around 70 percent of women crashed in cars, compared with about 60 percent of men. More than 20 percent of men crashed in pickups, compared with less than 5 percent of women. Within vehicle classes, men also tended to crash in heavier vehicles, which offer more protection in collisions."

One of the authors is quoted in an IIHS press release:

“The numbers indicate that women more often drive smaller, lighter cars and that they’re more likely than men to be driving the struck vehicle in side-impact and front-into-rear crashes. Once you account for that, the difference in the odds of most injuries narrows dramatically.”

In front-to-side crashes, the driver of the striking vehicle is much less likely to be injured than the person in the struck vehicle, and guess what: most of the time, the person doing the striking turns out to be male.

Big Ram pickup truck
Seen in my neighborhood/ Lloyd Alter

Here on Treehugger, we have been preoccupied with vehicular violence against people walking and cycling. Now we also have evidence of disproportionate vehicular violence against women. We essentially have a bunch of guys who drive too fast, in vehicles that are higher and heavier and plow through everything they hit, particularly in side-impact collisions. This starts a kind of arms race, where everyone buys bigger cars whether they need them or not, because they feel safer in traffic with all the other bigger vehicles. We have always dismissed that idea, but the statistics demonstrate that it is probably true.

We have called for regulations that make SUVs and light trucks as safe as passenger cars or get them off the road. Or if pickup trucks are needed for work, then license them as work vehicles, with extra training required to deal with their extra height and weight. All this death and injury is really just about bad design and is so unnecessary, so easily fixed.