In the car with her family that cold winter morning in 2019, Maria Weston Kuhn had no idea how her world would change – or how she would change the world.
That day a distracted driver crashed into her family’s car head on, and Maria and her mother suffered severe injuries. Maria’s brother and father, however, came out of the crash unscathed. At the time, none of them realized that their fates were part of a larger pattern in which women are 73% more likely than men to be injured in the same frontal crash. Like most Americans, Maria didn’t know these statistics when she suddenly became one of them – but she knows about them now, and she is determined to change them with her organization, Drive US Forward.
Gender Inequity in Transportation
Although Maria was forced to take a medical semester off from college, both she and her mother thankfully survived and eventually recovered from their injuries. During Maria’s recovery, her grandmother mailed her a Consumer Reports article about the gender inequities in crash safety testing, prompting Maria to begin researching this issue. She soon discovered that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) car crash safety standards do not use a representative female crash dummy when testing vehicles. The “female dummy” the DOT uses, the Hybrid III 5th, not only has the internal structure of someone assigned male at birth but is also never tested in the driver’s seat of the car. This means that the DOT’s crash safety test results are not representative of women’s safety in cars, especially while driving. Fortunately, there exists a much more accurate female crash dummy, the THOR 5F. But despite the huge gender disparities between crash injuries and fatalities, the DOT argues that equally testing the accurate female dummy is not worth the expense.
After learning this, Maria wasted no time pursuing change. Through an internship with Senator Angus King’s office, she familiarized herself with the practicalities of policy and later published her first article on gender inequality in transportation. This exposure helped her connect with other crash survivors as well as members of Congress and car company executives. Still, Maria often felt like she was “just screaming into the void” when she spoke with powerful figures who seemed to listen, but then took no action. Maria realized that, alone, she would be limited in her ability to make meaningful change in the face of institutional barriers – so she decided to create a larger grassroots movement focused on Gen Z advocacy.
Unsure of how to start an organization, Maria reached out for resources and discovered The Pollination Project’s seed grants. Remembering the day she received her grant, Maria says, “I was walking down the street, checking my phone, and I swear a ray of sunshine came from the clouds. I felt so lucky to be able to be in this position and try to fix something. I felt empowered.” The tools that Maria purchased with the funding supported Drive US Forward’s growth, allowing them to accept donations, among other big steps. “We couldn’t have even formed really without it. We have grown a lot from there, it’s sort of built and snowballed. I do feel as though we have a lot of momentum right now.”
Raising Public Awareness
Drive US Forward launched on International Women’s Day 2023 with the goals of raising public awareness, empowering and engaging young people, and mobilizing grassroots support for change. The timing seemed serendipitous when, on the very same day, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report finding the DOT’s crash test dummies inadequate and giving them until September 4, 2023 to fix it. Drive US Forward immediately honed in on this opportunity, spreading the word on social media and encouraging congressional action to support the inclusion of an accurate female dummy in crash testing. The organization recently made great progress when the language they worked on with members of Congress made it into both chambers’ Appropriations Reports, which means that the accurate female crash dummy could be implemented sooner than expected.
“It feels like such a hopeful time,” Maria says, reflecting on the past few months of advocacy and community building. “[Before,] I felt like I was facing these mountains, these institutions with huge amounts of apathy. Now, I feel like part of a team. It feels so inspiring, like such a blessing. I could not have done this without my team. I’m so grateful for everyone who’s been involved.”
Take Action – Help Drive US Forward
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