Crash test dummies may get heavier to protect heavier Americans

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- The test dummy has been used in crash after crash, year after year -- for nearly five decades, to be exact.

But as Americans continue to get taller, fatter and older, carmakers say it's becoming more apparent that the standard test dummy -- a 5-foot-9, 170-pound figurine -- is in need of a makeover.

Christopher O'Conner runs Humanetics, the leading maker of crash test dummies. He says a new dummy, which weighs about 100 pounds heavier and stands a few inches taller, is more like the real modern day driver. 

"It's pretty easy to tell which is the big, new dummy," CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave said. 

"Yes," O'Conner replied. "Our obese dummy."

"We have found that obese people, elderly people, people who don't fit the exact size and shape are more at risk in a vehicle right now," he added. 

"Do they need to switch to a larger dummy as the standard?" Van Cleave asked. 

"So I don't think one replaces the other," O'Conner said. "Auto safety is based on what we measure. We need to have a test device that reflects that growing population change."

According to Stewart Wang from the University of Michigan's International Center for Automotive Medicine, heavier people appear to sustain "more severe, lower extremity injuries." 

"Safety features, the airbags and most importantly the seatbelts are designed around those dummies," Wang explained to Van Cleave. 

Height and weight are not the only factors that will change on the appearance of future test dummies.

With nearly 20 percent of drivers being over the age of 65, O'Conner and Wang are also developing a crash dummy to replicate an elderly, more fragile body. 

"Unfortunately, the older population is four to eight times more likely to sustain chest injuries than a younger individual," Wang said. 

While it will take years to get regulatory approval, carmakers are already giving the heavier dummies a test run to determine if a bigger dummy means better safety. 

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