Health & Medicine

Crash test dummies get heavier as American body weights rise

A 2011 photo shows a crash test dummy in a Volvo vehicle at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.
A 2011 photo shows a crash test dummy in a Volvo vehicle at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Bloomberg

Every two weeks, we gather some of the most interesting studies from health and university researchers around the world. Here are some of the latest:

It’s come to this: America’s crash-test dummies are getting older and fatter.

In an effort to more accurately reflect the U.S. car-driving population, at least one manufacturer is making crash-test dummies – the pretend people used to test automobile safety features – bigger and older.

“The typical patient today is overweight or obese – they’re the rule rather than the exception,” said Dr. Stewart Wang, director of the University of Michigan International Center for Automotive Medicine, in a statement. “You can’t talk about injuries without talking about the person.”

The new crash-test models include a 273-pound dummy, more than 100 pounds heavier than normal, as well as a prototype based on an overweight 70-year-old woman.

“The condition, size and shape of an individual is hugely important in how severe their injuries are in any given crash,” said Wang, who has studied crash injuries and works with automotive engineers on safety research.

In frontal crashes, for instance, obese drivers tend to “submarine,” or slide under the lap belt, the University of Michigan research found. An obese person’s lower body tends to be loosely restrained because his or her lap belt has far more slack. As a result, obese drivers suffer a much higher rate of more severe lower-extremity injuries.

The new elderly dummy prototype has a body-mass index of 29. Its torso and chest have been redesigned, sagging a bit more than the slimmer physique of a typical crash-test dummy. According to Wang, an individual’s chest structures change between ages 20 to 80, which means the risk of chest injury goes up fifteenfold.

“Few would have envisioned that people would drive into their 80s, but we have to look at that,” according to a statement by Chris O’Connor, president and CEO of Humanetics, a Plymouth, Mich.-based maker of crash dummies. “As the population changes, we must have test equipment that resembles consumers today.”

Smoking bans reduce ER trips for asthma kids

Indoor smoking bans led to fewer children showing up in emergency rooms for asthma attacks. That’s according to new research from the University of Chicago Medicine, which looked at data from 20 U.S. metropolitan regions.

The study, led by pediatric allergy expert Dr. Christina Ciaccio, found a 17 percent decrease in the number of children needing asthma care in hospital emergency rooms between 2000 and 2014. Ciaccio examined 20 U.S. metropolitan areas that introduced smoking bans in public places such as restaurants, hotels and workplaces.

“This study shows that even those short exposures to secondhand smoke in public spaces like restaurants can have a significant impact on asthma exacerbations,” Ciaccio said in a statement. The study, co-authored by Brown University and Kansas University researchers, looked at data from 335,588 emergency room visits in 14 states.

Across all 20 hospitals in the study, the drop in asthma-related ER visits fell every year following the indoor smoking bans, the research found. Hospital emergency visits fell 8 percent after one year, 13 percent after two years and, finally, 17 percent after three years. There was no corresponding nationwide decline in children’s asthma-related emergency room visits during the same period, the study noted.

That compares with a Kaiser Health News analysis of California data that shows between 2005 and 2012, ER visits for children’s asthma symptoms statewide rose by about 18 percent for children ages 5 to 17 and by 6 percent for children under 5. In Sacramento County, ER visits rose by 48 percent and by 17 percent in Los Angeles.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck