How fat are Americans? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that two thirds of us are overweight or (ugly word ahead) “obese.” The obesity rate is 33 percent, up from just 23 percent in the late 1980s. And the average citizen weighs 23 pounds more than the target for their age and height. No wonder Big and Tall shops are thriving.

This matters for a lot of reasons — car and airplane seats need to be double-wide, for instance, and think about doorway widths. But it’s also affecting something else: crash test dummies. Unfortunately, fat people are up to 78 percent more likely to die in a car crash than their slender counterparts, yet dummies have traditionally mimicked somebody who weighs 167 pounds. 

fatter crash test dummy

This is the Humanetics relaxed-fit dummy, designed to mimic a 270-pound guy. (Photo: Humanetics)

Humanetics is a leading dummy maker, and its new design looks like Morgan Spurlock after he spent a month hanging out at McDonald’s for "Super Size Me." The measurements break the tape measure, mimicking 270 big pounds and a BMI of 35 (“morbidly obese,” according to the CDC). The resulting product, with thighs like Smithfield hams, was modeled on large human cadavers — which were probably not hard to find.

These dummies are really cool. One I saw at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado, testing electric car heaters, actually sweated. It was bizarre to see. Here's a look on video:

Humanetics reports that the dummies it makes simulate “human response to impacts, accelerations, deflections, forces and moments generated during a crash.” They're not very expressive, but you'll swear you see them grimacing when their heads hit a windshield.

Family of crash test dummies

These folks make a nice nuclear family, but they aren't really representative of our overweight population. (Wikimedia photo)

The dummy maker seems a bit defensive. “As an alternative,” Humanetics says, “using human subjects in direct crash testing is not a good approach. Subjects may be injured or killed, which is not acceptable on humanitarian grounds.” You think?

Nevertheless, the switch to a big dummy makes a sort of inevitable sense. According to Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, “Absolutely, it’s an area that is overdue as the median size of the population has evolved. The effectiveness of seatbelts, airbags and even seat structures is highly dependent on the size of the occupant, including weight, height and girth.”

It’s the girth thing they’re going after here. If the belt rides too high on the stomach (as opposed to the hips) it can cause internal injuries. And a too-close airbag can cause burns and abrasions. Abuelsamid said the aviation industry is also going through a seatbelt reevaluation. That plus-size guy in the seat next to you may not be safe, even though his tray table is stowed, his bag is under his upright seat, and his smartphone is in airplane mode. Here's the back story from YouTube:

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.