How safe is YOUR car? Crash testing is make or break for car brands

How safe is YOUR car? Vehicle crash testing is make or break for motoring brands… Here’s what goes into this rigorous yearly process

The last thing anyone wants is to be involved in a crash, but if this fear does become a reality it’s reassuring to know that our car has all the appropriate safety features.

And it’s up to laboratory tests and crash test dummies — which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds each and are stuffed with sensors — to keep you and your loved ones safe in the event of an accident on the road.

Dummies are the high-tech guinea pigs used in real cars to check how a human driver, their passengers and pedestrians would fare in the event of a serious collision.

Packed with features: Skoda's Enyaq iV Sportline 80 was one of the safest cars tested by EuroNCAP so far this year

Packed with features: Skoda’s Enyaq iV Sportline 80 was one of the safest cars tested by EuroNCAP so far this year

The big bang

The programme of independent crash-testing arrived in the UK a quarter of a century ago in 1996 — with the first results published in February 1997.

And next week, the results of a final round of about a dozen crash tests for 2021 are published — and while likely to delight some car-makers whose vehicles perform well, they are expected to make uncomfortable reading for others.

The European New Car Assessment Programme — called more commonly EuroNCAP — has shone a light on the key issue of car safety and has given consumers a simple-to-read five-star rating by which to judge how safe their and other vehicles are.

Of the cars tested this year, the Subaru Outback (from £33,995) is the highest rated ‘across the board’ among the top five-star vehicles.

The first published UK and European tests in 1997 caused a stir when the popular Rover 100 was given an infamous one-star rating out of a then maximum four — at a time when a zero rating didn’t exist.

The system was met with initial resistance by car manufacturers who insisted their own in-house standards were more than adequate. But EuroNCAP ratings quickly took off, with those car makers who did well claiming ‘bragging rights’ to advertise just how safe their cars were.

By contrast, those faring badly were shamed into raising their game.

Publishing the test results —alongside dramatic photographs and videos of the tests in progress and their aftermath — had a great impact. Essentially, score badly and you risk losing sales. Score well, and watch those cars roll out of the showrooms.

Six ‘Five-Star’ cars of 2021 

Skoda Enyaq iV: Scoring 94 per cent for occupant protection, this new Skoda SUV is from £32,78

Skoda Enyaq iV: Scoring 94 per cent for occupant protection, this new Skoda SUV is from £32,785

Subaru Outback: The highest rated car so far in 2021, Japan's all-wheel-drive estate is priced from £33,995

Subaru Outback: The highest rated car so far in 2021, Japan’s all-wheel-drive estate is priced from £33,995

Ford Mustang Mach-E: This sporty Ford (from £40,270) was rated 92 per cent for protecting driver and passengers as well as 86 per cent for children

Ford Mustang Mach-E: This sporty Ford (from £40,270) was rated 92 per cent for protecting driver and passengers as well as 86 per cent for children

Toyota Yaris Cross: This hybrid hot hatch is from £28,185 and despite being small scored strongly across the board

Toyota Yaris Cross: This hybrid hot hatch is from £28,185 and despite being small scored strongly across the board

Polestar 2: Stylish but also safe (and not cheap at £49,900) this all-electric fastback saloon scored at least 80 per cent in all areas

Polestar 2: Stylish but also safe (and not cheap at £49,900) this all-electric fastback saloon scored at least 80 per cent in all areas

Volkswagen ID.4: Volkswagen's all-electric 5-door crossover (starting at £34,305) takes care of its charges, scoring 93 per cent for occupant protection and 89 per cent for child protection

Volkswagen ID.4: Volkswagen’s all-electric 5-door crossover (starting at £34,305) takes care of its charges, scoring 93 per cent for occupant protection and 89 per cent for child protection

Slowing down

In the 1990s, the UK and other European countries set up EuroNCAP, with tests in Britain initially carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory and supported by the Department for Transport.

Thatcham Research joined as a member of EuroNCAP in 2004 and now represents the UK, carrying out research that led to the introduction of whiplash testing in 2009.

Active safety systems were included in the tests from 2011, with Electronic Stability Control and Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist and lane departure warning in 2014.

New tests include improved AEB systems that can detect and avoid crashes with motorbikes and scooters as well as monitor the driver to check for signs of drowsiness or distraction.

Crash course: Putting the Subaru Outback through its EuroNCAP safety tests in a head-on collision

Crash course: Putting the Subaru Outback through its EuroNCAP safety tests in a head-on collision

Over a quarter century, Euro NCAP has assessed about 900 vehicle models, of which Thatcham Research in Berkshire has tested about 40 models — crashing 150 individual cars — since becoming an accredited EuroNCAP test facility in 2012.

It generally takes about two weeks to prepare and carry out crash testing. And some self-braking tests take place in the middle of the night to check how well cars recognise and avoid impact with pedestrians in the dark.

Inspectors analyse the huge amounts of data and videos and even dismantle the test vehicles to ensure their performance is robust.

Although a voluntary scheme, EuroNCAP testers have bought cars on the open market to test, if manufacturers proved reluctant.

A spokesman for EuroNCAP said: ‘When it first started, the aim was to create an independent safety rating that went beyond the minimum requirements of safety legislation, so consumers could make an informed choice when purchasing a new car.’

Tried and tested

Fiat was famously caught out in 2017 when its largely unchanged Punto model was given ‘zero stars’ despite achieving a top grade ‘5 stars’ five years earlier.

Examples of crash test simulations

  • A head-on crash into a brick wall.
  • A near-head on collision with an oncoming vehicle.
  • A ‘pole test’ — skidding side-on into a sign-post or telegraph pole or tree.
  • Whiplash-inducing accidents that test seat and head restraints.

Fiat had made no safety improvements in that time, not even offering side airbags as standard. The Fiat Panda was also reassessed as zero stars in 2018 for similar reasons.

The budget £7,995 Dacia Sandero was also recently stripped of its What Car? Car of the Year award after subsequently scoring just two stars out of five because of its lack of an emergency braking system in crash tests (which would have given it a 4-star rating).

Child, cyclist and pedestrian protection is also now key. And a vehicle’s star rating can only be as high as the lowest score for any individual test.

A new test replicates the effect of vehicles of different sizes colliding to ensure that the big off-roader doesn’t protect its occupants at the expense of the smaller car.

Encouragingly, results from 2020/21, show several top five-star cars with scores of more than 90 per cent adult occupant protection, and more than 80 per cent for child, pedestrian and ‘safety assist’.

Some of the pictures of cars crumpling on collision may seem dramatic, but that’s what they are meant to do. Cars are engineered with ‘crumple zones’ to dissipate most of the energy before it reaches the occupants.

Experts calculate that more than 182,000 fatalities and serious injuries have been saved on UK roads since the introduction of EuroNCAP car safety tests. 

The number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or seriously injured has fallen from 14,500 in 1997 to 8,500 in 2015. Between 1997 and 2017, annual deaths on UK roads were halved from 3,599 to 1,793.

  • Check your own or prospective car’s crash-test safety rating at: euroncap.com/en/ratings-rewards

Charging slump hits electric car owners 

Demand: The number of cars sharing each public charge-point rose from 11 to 16 between 2019 and 2020

Demand: The number of cars sharing each public charge-point rose from 11 to 16 between 2019 and 2020

‘We’ve sorted out building the electric cars for you — now do your bit to help keep pace with sufficient public on-street charge points’.

That’s broadly the message from UK car-makers to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and the Government this week.

Frustrated by the bluster from ministers who are banning petrol and diesel cars from 2030, car-makers who have switched production to battery vehicles are highlighting how the Government is now the biggest brake on electric car take-up.

New analysis from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reveals that the number of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles forced to share each standard public charge point grew by nearly a third (31 per cent) last year.

The number of cars sharing each public charge-point rose from 11 to 16 vehicles between 2019 and 2020.

It added that only one new charger is being installed for every 52 new electric vehicles registered.

The report said Britain’s 16 to 1 ratio of plug-in vehicles to standard public chargers has deteriorated to become one of the worst among the top ten global electric vehicle markets.

Across the UK, London has the best ratio of cars to chargers at 10 to 1, but this is down from 5 to 1 in 2019.

The East of England has the lowest ratio, with just one standard public charger for every 49 plug-in vehicles. Wales beats the national average with a ratio of 12 to 1, with Scotland at 17 to 1.

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