The Family That Crashes Together, Saves Together

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If you're planning a dinner party, don't bother inviting them (they're excruciatingly dull). But if you're thinking about building a new car and want to make it as safe as possible for drivers and passengers of all sizes, these are the folks to turn to. America, meet the crash test dummy family: Mom, Dad and three kids. According to an announcement Friday from the U.S. Transportation Department, this nuclear gang will begin replacing traditional one-size-fits-all dummies in automobile crash tests immediately, thereby enhancing the efficacy of air bags and other safety devices.

Until now, air bags and seat belts have been tested on dummies modeled after an average-size man, a practice, critics charge, that has put smaller adults and most children at risk. When an air bag deploys, its force is directed into what would be a grown man's chest. Women and children, on the other hand, end up taking the brunt of the energy in the head and neck — a design flaw that's been fatal in 158 cases since 1990. (Air bags have, however, also saved an estimated 5,500 lives.) Friday's announcement follows considerable criticism of the government's mandated crash test procedure in the past decade. This clamor is unlikely to die down any time in the near future; transportation officials have also locked horns with consumer advocates who argue that the government's crash scenarios need to cover not only a wider array of passenger sizes, but a variety of speeds, passenger positions and angles of impact. So while Friday's modification will please many DOT critics, it certainly won't placate all of them — a long-standing pattern that beleaguered transportation officials have undoubtedly learned to live with.