In January of this year, this author threw down the gauntlet regarding NHTSA crash data given that women drivers are 73% more likely to be injured and 17% more likely to die in a car crash. I suggested that an automotive #metoo movement must be led by either government agencies mandating female, driver-seat crash dummies or female, driver-seat executives stepping-up their company’s game and protecting the women of the world. While naming multiple, high-profile ladies, I suggested that, “… the public must vote with its wallet … [and] if the majority of the market creates the demand, the manufacturers will listen.” My insinuation was that none have acted sufficiently.
Mea culpa. Volvo was decades ahead of me.
The EVA Initiative
In early 1927, Volvo was founded with ‘Cars are driven by people, therefore safety is of utmost importance,” says Dr. Lotta Jakobsson, Volvo’s Senior Technical Specialist for Injury Prevention. “In the 1950’s, we started on occupant protection, and the safety belt was a result of that. Something we learned from that was the value of collecting real-world data, especially to convince customers of its usage.” Inspired by that, Volvo started gathering information and has done so continuously since 1970with data now collected from over 43,000 crashed vehicles and 72,000 associated occupants. “This is all real-world information. Questionnaires / Interviews. Photo reviews. Sometimes on-site investigations and theoretical reconstruction. Injury collection when there’s consent. Repair costs on the car. Therein, we can create a reference of a certain severity so we can see the decline in injury risk over time within the data.”
And so the Equal Vehicles for All (EVA) Initiative was born, and the results of nearly 40 years of research are shared in the hopes of making all cars safer for occupants of all shapes and sizes. “We started from the aspect that people are different, and how do we address these differences.” When asked how such a corporate revelation is birthed – let alone spread – within a for-profit manufacturer, Dr. Jakobsson does not even seem to comprehend the possibility of a non-safety culture. “It has been important for us the whole way; we are our own driving force based upon the real-world needs. We don’t wait for the regulations to change and, in fact, have many examples where we have been driving the changes in regulation. It is a passion, but it’s not only passion. It’s a structured way of working. It is a mindset.”
How That Plays Out
As the cliché originally read, “The proof of the pudding is in the taste.” To overcome the gender-biases in design, that data needed to drive design decisions. “Age, gender and stature are there all of the time,” states Jakobsson. “Whatever we do with respect to improving safety, we have to understand these factors.” Jakobsson goes on to describe the accident data emphasized the frequency of chest injuries, which drove the Volvo team towards an innovation at the time. “We chose to place the side airbags on the outside of the seat in the mid-90’s simply to benefit for all people since it tracks with the occupant. An alternative, of course, would have been to package it in the door panel, but a short female might move away from it.”
In the end, though, the statistics are the best storytellers. “The study that I’m the proudest of,” states Jakobsson, “is the WHIPS or Whiplash Protection System, which drove a unique head restraint and seat design system. Normally, women are at a higher risk of injury, but WHIPS reduced the female-injury risk so significantly by protecting both the head and spine that we no longer see a difference between men and women.” Additional Volvo papers discuss the need for Inflatable Curtain airbags to reduce head impacts for the shorter drivers, and others provide research around pregnant drivers and the effects of seat belts and airbags.
The most telling portion of the interview, though, was about female crash test dummies. Despite some markets still not having regulations to use both genders in the driver’s seat, Volvo started doing this testing over 25 years ago. And Dr. Jakobsson wasn’t all that braggadocios about that. “Most of what you’d learn from that testing should have been discovered via the data and built into the design already. Crash testing is just verifying the design.”
In the end, Dr. Jakobsson summed up the conversation perfectly with what should be a bumper sticker for all automotive executives, “When you have the mindset that everybody is important, then you create many friends.”
In 2006, my wife was driving our 3-year-old toddler to an appointment when a merging vehicle hit black ice, lost control, and forced my wife’s SUV into the embankment. Despite rolling and totaling the vehicle, both of my loved ones survived with barely a scratch.
My message to the remaining auto executives: I have other ladies in my family that I cherish. I have two intelligent, beautiful nieces, a couple of sister-in-laws that are truly loving sisters and, yes, despite everyone’s stereotypical assumptions, I lucked into a fantastic mother-in-law. I want them to live. Figure out your Safety Goals. Foster a structured way of working. Create that same mindset.