Euro NCAP safety test results feature as a plus point on glossy marketing brochures and carmakers are keen to point out how they have been scored by crash test specialist Thatcham.
However, some groups claim that manufacturers’ attempts to make cars safer could actually backfire.
As vehicle safety standards become more demanding, manufacturers have begun to structurally strengthen vehicles in a bid to improve occupant safety – one of the key assessments in the Euro NCAP safety tests.
But improving safety for those seated inside the vehicle could actually be jeopardising it for those on the outside.
The A-pillars on any vehicle are a key component to safety. Sitting either side of the windscreen, holding it in place, they contribute to the rigid structure of a car and are fundamental to design. They also increasingly have side airbags.
However, they also have the most impact on a driver’s vision, especially when cornering and, as manufacturers have strived to make safer cars, the A-pillars have increased in width and thickness, creating a potential obstruction to a driver’s field of view.
Paul Smith, founder of the Safe Speed road safety campaign (< a href www.safespeed.org.uk), believes drivers need to be aware of the dangers.
He said: ‘The official response to this serious issue is unfortunately typical of modern weak road safety thinking. It’s very important that we warn road users of the risks and explain how best to manage them.
‘It’s all too easy to attempt to look around the screen pillar and in the process to ‘opposite track’ the movements of a conflicting road user and very few road users understand the issues in sufficient detail.’
VOLVO has come up with a solution to obstructive A-pillars with its SCC safety concept car.
Drivers are able to see through the A-pillars, thanks to a framework structure made of a combination of metal and plexiglass.
The SCC also has a sensor that automatically catches the drivers’ eyes and adjusts the seat to put the eyes in the position which offers best view for both road and dashboard instruments
Research aims to apportion blame
THE Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has announced plans to investigate the possible link between certain types of road traffic accident and A-pillar obscuration on behalf of the Department of Transport (DfT).
TRL’s Accident Research Group has access to accident data which will enable them to study the extent A-pillar obscuration may play as a factor in road traffic accidents.
The TRL says the problem is more prevalent when certain road layouts are involved, such as roundabouts and junctions. Indications are that a motorcyclist could disappear behind the driver’s A-pillar for approximately 0.35 seconds, the time it takes for a driver to take a quick glance before pulling out.
Val Millington, project manager at the TRL, said: ‘The DfT will release the results when the study is complete but this is more of a pilot study to see if there is actually a problem.’
The onus on drivers to take responsibility for their actions is becoming more evident and manufacturers carry out tests on A-pillars to ensure they are safe and do not obstruct vision.
A spokesman at vehicle engineering and testing group MIRA said: ‘A-pillars are significant for the rigid structure of a car as manufacturers spread the load through the roof and floor plan.
‘There is a field of view requirement which vehicles have to pass and it is one of the first things designers do to assess the angles above and below the horizontal eyeline.
‘MIRA has a visibility laboratory where we confirm the manufacturer tests. A-pillars are getting thicker but there is legislation in place to ensure drivers can see significantly well.’
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) believes the safety aspects of A-pillars in terms of protecting occupants in an impact are vital.
As with all new vehicles, A-pillars must adhere to stringent rules relating to obstruction of vision lines and safety must come first, says the industry body.
A spokesman at the SMMT said: ‘Windscreens must hold firm under contact, the roof must hold up if the car were to overturn and the energy absorbed in an accident must be allowed to pass through as much of the car as possible, thereby protecting the occupants.’
Call for change in design
THE University of Minnesota in America has already completed a number of trials into the size of A-pillars and has suggested that they do cause risks.
In tests, drivers were divided into four groups based on their observation techniques. In the poorest group, almost 70% of drivers crashed because of A-pillar obscuration and even in the best group 11% of drivers crashed.
The study, called ‘Perception and Action in Virtual Environments: ‘Human Performance in Virtual Driving Simulators’ states: ‘It is not sufficient that drivers be taught, ‘look right, look left, look right again’ before proceeding into a junction.
‘An awareness of the weaknesses of human perception should be nurtured.
‘Once we are made aware of the ability of our brains to fill in for missing visual information or to distort partial visual cues, it is possible that a lessened sense of complacency while driving may result.’
The research claims that vehicles and roads could both be redesigned to combat the problem of obscured vision.
The study states: ‘Either the vehicle itself must be re-engineered to provide for better vision or the road must be redesigned to re-orient the vehicle as it approaches the junction.
‘This could be accomplished by something as simple as a small deviation in the lane position. Active warning flashers may produce the desired effect, but this would be prohibitively expensive.’