Women more likely than men to be hurt in crashes

Linda Melone

While men and women may debate which gender is safer on the road, a new study makes it clear that female drivers are far more likely to suffer serious injuries than male drivers in similar types of car accidents.

The study, released in October 2011 by the American Journal of Public Health, found that compared with men who were wearing seat belts, women wearing seat belts were 47 percent more likely to suffer severe injuries in similar crashes, such as those at the same speeds. Women also were more likely to suffer chest and spinal injuries in these crashes than men were. The study examined data from 1998 to 2008 collected by the National Highway Safety Administration from more than 45,000 U.S. crashes.

One potential culprit in the gender gap highlighted in the study: Researchers say vehicle safety may be "biased" toward men, as men are three times more likely to be involved in car crashes than women.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat, has called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to evaluate the "shocking" study and take steps to protect female drivers. Maloney says the federal government "has done a great job of getting Americans to buckle up – but now it needs to buckle down when it comes to correcting any disparity between women and men in auto safety."

Dipan Bose, a research scientist at the University of Virginia's Center for Applied Biomechanics and the study's lead author, says no single factor explained the higher injury risk for female drivers. In fact, several issues could be putting women in greater danger. For instance, women tend to lean forward more when driving, which boosts the risk of injury from a rapidly deploying air bag. Leaning forward also makes women more prone to side-impact injuries.

Given the study's findings, what can female drivers do to reduce their risk of being injured in a car crash?

1. Consider the car. Because of their generally shorter stature, women may want to look at driving cars that a Consumer Reports review determined are better for shorter motorists. Among the 2011 models in that category were:

• Acura MDX. • BMW 750 Li. • Honda Accord EX-L. • Honda Odyssey EX-L. • Lexus ES 350. • Lexus LS 460L. • Mercedes-Benz S550. • Nissan Maxima 3.5 SL. • Saab 9-3. • Subaru Forester 2.5XT Limited.

2. Fix your posture. Dr. Tim Ramirez, a chiropractor in Southern California, says: "Instead of sitting up close to the steering wheel, think of the posture NASCAR drivers use, with their arms fully extended, eyes focused forward and (body positioned) further back from the steering wheel." The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends keeping a minimum of 10 inches between your chest and the center of the steering wheel.

3. Get support. Use a lumbar (lower back) support to prevent you from slouching forward, says Amanda Zimmerman, a physical therapist with Strive Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation in New Jersey.

4. Check the belt. Your seat belt should fit securely and comfortably. If it hits close to your neck or otherwise doesn't fit properly, consider buying a device that changes the position of your seat belt so that it's not rubbing against your neck. "The seat belt should go over the hips, restraining the bone, not the soft tissues," Bose says.

5. Make an adjustment. Do not sit on a pillow or anything else to raise you up on your seat. Instead, adjust the height of the seat.

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