David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Masei — Crash test dummies

Who is held responsible for a preventable death caused by negligence? The blame goes all the way to the top (Parshat Masai)
Two male Hybrid III crash test dummies. (CC BY-SA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/ Wikimedia Commons)
Two male Hybrid III crash test dummies. (CC BY-SA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety/ Wikimedia Commons)

Car safety has improved so much over the years. I remember when I was a kid, cars had no safety belts in the back seats (even seat belts in the front seat were not always available). There were no airbags, no crumple zones, no side-impact protection, no anti-lock brakes and certainly no reversing cameras or sensors.

And the new technology has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. A recent study which analyzed crashes involving more than 31,000 individuals which occurred between 1998 and 2015 found that people in cars manufactured since 2009 were significantly more likely to avoid serious injury.

Yet, despite all the safety improvements to vehicles, the chances of women being seriously injured or killed in a car crash is 73 percent higher than for men. And there may be a very simple reason for this. All safety improvements are made with the help of crash-test dummies, which are always modeled on an average male.

Women on average have different body shapes, muscle mass, height and fat distribution than men. So, for example, a seatbelt designed for a man sitting a certain distance away from the steering wheel is probably not as effective for a woman who is likely sitting much closer to the steering wheel.

In 1968, the first crash test dummy was introduced, having been designed specifically for the automobile industry. (Before then cadavers were used in tests — which is both more gross and less useful for data). But it was only in 2011 that the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated tests on dummies modeled on women. In Europe, it wasn’t until 2015 that EuroNCAP started testing on female dummies.

Even so, most of the tests are still carried out on male dummies. And the female dummies used are not actually modeled on women, but are scaled-down dummies modeled on men. The reason for this is that it takes decades of research and tests to build a model that accurately reflects reality.

So, car manufacturers and government safety bodies have failed to prevent female deaths and injuries due to negligence, when they forgot about over half the population.

In her book, “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men,” Caroline Criado-Perez documents this and many other examples where data about females is ignored, including medical research, heart attack diagnosis, cooking technology and even snow plowing patterns, which lead to increased risk of death or injury for women.

Recent studies have shown that women are less likely to get the correct diagnosis or care in heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease, endometriosis or to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation from bystanders (all the CPR dummies are male).

Interestingly, the Torah verses (Exodus 21:28, 31) referring to injuries are among the few that specifically refer to men and women separately.

If an ox gores a man or a woman… Or if it gores a boy or a girl.

Perhaps this demonstrates how obvious it is that females can be injured in different ways than males.

To what extent are companies or governmental agencies liable for inadvertently causing women’s deaths due to male-based data? Obviously there is no intent to cause harm, but nonetheless, people have died as a result of the negligence.

It is true that overall many lives have been saved of both women and men. But from the very beginning of safety tests there was a clear bias to protect males more than females. And it is likely that the testers were not even aware of this bias. Yet they should have been.

This week’s Torah portion discusses the laws of one who inadvertently kills another through negligence. In Numbers, Chapter 35, it speaks of the six cities of refuge that are to be established where an accidental murderer can safely escape the deceased’s next of kin seeking revenge.

An image of a man fleeing to a city of refuge, from 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us: Containing 400 Illustrations from the Old and New Testaments: With brief descriptions by Charles Foster. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Talmud in Tractate Makkot discusses the laws of a city of refuge and the circumstances when one must flee there. Anyone who accidentally kills another person must initially run to a city of refuge.

Once there, the court hears the case, and distinguishes among three situations: someone who kills inadvertently with no fault; someone who is completely innocent because the death they caused was not preventable; and someone who killed inadvertently, but was negligent in his or her actions and should have been able to foresee that they would likely cause death.

The first type of person may remain in the city of refuge. Someone who had no fault at all goes free. And someone who was negligent in causing death may not remain in the city of refuge. He or she bears guilt for their actions, even though they did not intentionally murder; they must spend the rest of their lives worrying about the next of kin, or trying to appease them.

The Talmud goes further in apportioning responsibility for preventable death. Those who remain in the city of refuge must stay there until the death of the High Priest. He is also responsible for the death to a certain extent, because as leader, he should have prayed effectively that nobody would die during his tenure.

High priest offering a sacrifice of a goat, on the Day of Atonement,; from Henry Davenport Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, published 1894. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

The Talmud, written long after the era of the Temple and the High Priests, extends this responsibility of leadership to all leaders. It says (Makkot 11a) that someone was once eaten by a lion three furlongs away from where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi lived, and as a result Elijah the Prophet did not appear to him for three days.

Although the specific details of cities of refuge no longer apply, the principles are still valid. We must do everything we can to avoid causing inadvertent death. Individuals are liable for negligence. Leaders are responsible for every death that happens during their term.

And among other things, car safety tests need to urgently be upgraded to include the 51% of the population currently ignored.

I heard Criado-Perez speak about the lack of female crash test dummies on the podcast “99% Invisible.”

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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