SAFETY is the buzzword in new cars today. Adverts boast of it and showrooms are festooned with banners advising of a manufacturer’s latest death-defying acronym. Drivers have never been safer.
Safety is the top priority for 94% of new car buyers, according to a new Mori survey. With legislation promising to tighten as time goes by, how safe a new car is can make or break its chances of success.
Most new models produced today in Europe undergo rigorous crash testing from the experts at the European New Car Assessment Programme, better known as Euro NCAP.
Only after a plethora of smashes, crashes and prangs does the organisation then assign the star ratings that manufacturers proudly display in their marketing.
It was not always thus – Euro NCAP is just 10 years old, but since its inception, cars have become five times safer for occupants.
The programme was founded in 1995 by a consortium comprising the Department for Transport, International Testing, the Swedish National Road Administration, the governing body of world motorsport the FIA, the AA and the RAC.
Surprisingly, given its success, the consortium’s conception was controversial in the motor industry at the time.
Adrian Hobbs, Euro NCAP’s secretary general, recalls: ‘We were pressing the industry to make cars safer, but at that time manufacturers thought that safety didn’t sell cars.
Historically, in the US, Ford tried to promote safety and it wasn’t successful.
‘By the early 1990s, I don’t think people believed there was much of a difference between different cars. We had opposition in getting legislation through.
‘The manufacturers thought it would be a great imposition on them and said the standards we were pressing them to go to were way beyond what was possible.’
But crash tests duly began in 1997. The first car to run the gauntlet was the Rover 100, which highlighted the poor standard of occupant protection at the time.
The Metro-descendent performed dreadfully, scoring only one star for front and side impact protection, a score that remains an all-time low to this day.
Public reaction to footage of the tests was swift. Police forces refused to use the 100 and some mothers refused to employ child minders who ferried their kids around in them. The results clearly demonstrated how safe a car was, something that consumers could only speculate about before Euro NCAP’s inception.
Hobbs said: ‘When car manufacturers did well in the tests, it affected their sales. More and more people got on the bandwagon.’
A key role in developing the crash test was played by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory.
Each vehicle tested was bought anonymously to ensure they were standard production models.
Over the past decade more than £6 million has been spent buying more than 400 cars, representing 200 different models.
When manufacturers realised the depth of public feeling that had developed over safety, they began trumpeting Euro NCAP scores in their marketing strategies.
Such industry and consumer attention has pushed carmakers to invest heavily in safety features to try and improve their scores.
Hobbs said this had brought about numerous milestones in automotive safety, starting almost immediately.
Just months after the Rover 100 scored just one star, Volvo’s S40 gained four. Euro NCAP kept adding to its tests as the years went by, and in 2001 the Renault Laguna was the first car to get a five-star rating.
As the 21st century blossomed, attention began to extend outside the occupants of the car, looking at the thousands of pedestrians who are struck by vehicles each year.
Citroen’s forthcoming luxury model, the C6, has just become the first car to receive a four-star pedestrian safety rating. It uses innovative new technology, including a bonnet that pops upwards on impact to help cushion a pedestrian’s head against the engine.
The work carried out by Euro NCAP over the past 10 years has led to great advances in vehicle safety. But Hobbs said the organisation was needed now more than ever.
He added: ‘There’s always going to be more that manufacturers can do.
‘It’s now unacceptable for people to be killed in civil aircraft or rail crashes. Yet we are still prepared to have 10 people killed every day on UK roads alone. Car crashes are still the biggest cause of death and serious injury for people in terms of accidents and it is going to get worse as more people get on to the roads in places such as China and India.
Hobbs concludes: ‘This is just the start – but it’s a good start.’
How the NCAP crash tests work
EURO NCAP tests are not mandatory, but they act as an incentive for manufacturers to improve the safety of their cars and make safety information available to buyers.
Vehicles are usually acquired anonymously or randomly selected from the carmaker.
Manufacturers are asked to provide test set-up information, to recommend child seats and make any general comments. They are also invited to watch the tests and say whether they are satisfied with the way they are run.
The tests were based on those developed by the European Enhanced Vehicle Safety Committee, but with an impact speed on 5mph faster.
Tests carried out are a front impact test at 40mph, a side impact test at 31mph, a side impact pole test at 18mph and pedestrian tests at 25mph.
A child safety rating is also worked out from the car’s ability to accommodate certain child seats and front and side impact tests.
Birthday tributes to Euro NCAP
The Euro NCAP standard has provided a great benefit to fleet operators everywhere. Many ACFO members adopted a minimum star rating in their allocation policies once the notion of the system had become established and understood. There’s no doubt that the process has been beneficial to everyone.
Stewart Whyte, Director of ACFO
In collaboration with the
FIA and others, Euro NCAP has pioneered a ratings system that is both a benchmark for manufacturers and a quality assurance for the consumer. Over the past 10 years, the number of cars achieving five stars has vastly increased and people looking for crash protection now
have real choice.
Dr Stephen Ladyman, Transport Minister
Having seen some of the
early results close up, I vowed never to ever travel in certain cars but to campaign for safety improvements. It is gratifying to see that 10 years later many of the poorer performers are now five-
Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation
The priority for Euro NCAP’s second decade must be on promoting active safety, such as electronic stability control, to improve crash prevention. I am proud that the FIA was involved at the very start of Euro NCAP, support which continues today through the FIA Foundation.
David Ward, director-general of the FIA Foundation
Thatcham applauds the
improvements in vehicle safety driven by Euro NCAP’s work. Occupant safety has improved dramatically and now pedestrian safety is also at the forefront of manufacturers’ design priorities. The growing awareness among motorists that safety is not an option but a right can surely be laid at the feet of this
Andrew Miller, director of research at Thatcham