Car Safety Testing: what you should know before you buy
You’re in the market for a new car and you think you have found the perfect model. It’s the right price, it looks great and it’s just the right size for what you need.
But how much research have you done into the car’s safety features? How well would they protect you and your passengers in the event of a crash? And what damage would it do to adult and child pedestrians if a collision occurred?
We believe that safety must be the most important factor when buying a car. But choosing the right one can be difficult. That’s why it pays to understand the whole system of safety testing before you buy, so you know where to do your research and will understand the information you uncover.
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Car safety testing has come a long way since the first road fatalities occurred in the 1890s. While some manufacturers have earned their reputations based on extensive safety testing, it is fair to say that others were slower to see safety as the big ‘sell’ it now is. Performance, speed, looks and power were for many years the big enticements, and safety had something of a back seat.
Today, with more information instantly available to the consumer, safety is where it should be – right at the forefront of car-buying decisions. Central to that has been the development of the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) crash tests.
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ALL ABOUT EURO NCAP
Euro NCAP was Established in 1997. It is now officially backed by seven European Governments, as well as the European Commission and motoring and consumer organisations in every EU country. Euro NCAP has spearheaded significant safety improvements to new car design.
Euro NCAP’s tests include Adult Occupant Protection, Child Occupant Protection, Pedestrian Protection and Safety Assist (a recently-added assessment). Under the new testing regime, vehicles are awarded a single overall score from one to five stars.
The tests are getting more and more rigorous. Up until 2009, carmakers required 25% in pedestrian protection to be awarded a five star ratingNow, 40% is required for pedestrian protection and a further 5% required in Adult and Child Occupant protection to achieve the overall maximum star award.
The assessment incorporates all previous aspects and includes the recently introduced Rear Impact (Whiplash) tests. In addition, the availability of ESC and speed limitation devices is considered.
The overall rating is based on the car’s performance in each of the four main areas and the scores are weighted with respect to each other.
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THE STAR RATINGS
For cars tested before 2009, Euro NCAP has three separate ratings, for adult protection, child occupant and pedestrian protection. The ratings for adult protection and child protection come from frontal, side and pole impact tests. There were separate pedestrian tests to give a score for the Pedestrian Rating.
From 2009, Euro NCAP released just one overall star rating for each car tested. The maximum obtainable is five stars. This overall safety rating is composed of scores in four areas: adult protection, child protection, pedestrian protection and safety assist. The underlying dynamic tests are identical to those before 2009, except for the addition of a test for Whiplash neck injury protection in rear impact. There are extra marks available for seat belt reminders, speed limiters and the standard fitting of Electronic Stability Control (ESC).
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ALL ABOUT THE TESTS
The frontal impact test takes place at 64kph (40mph), and involves a car striking an offset deformable barrier.
The car to car side impact test involves a mobile deformable barrier impacting the driver’s door of a car at 50 km/h. The injury protection is assessed by a side impact test dummy, placed in the driver’s seat.
The pole side impact test involves propelling a car sideways at 29kph (18mph) into a rigid pole. The pole is relatively narrow, so there is significant penetration into the side of the car.
Child protection is now an integral part of a car’s overall star rating, and not a separate category. A score is worked out from the frontal and side impact barrier tests, because dummies representing 1½ and 3 year old children are placed in the rear of the car in the type of child restraint recommended by the car manufacturer. The score achieved depends not only on the child seat dynamic performance in front and side impact tests but also on the fitting instructions for the child restraints, airbag warning labels, and the car’s ability to accommodate the child restraints safely.
Pedestrian protection is assessed by carrying out a series of tests to replicate accidents involving child and adult pedestrians where impacts occur at 40kph (25mph). Impact sites are then assessed and rated fair, weak and poor. A Legform test assesses the protection afforded to the lower leg by the bumper, an Upper Legform assesses the leading edge of the bonnet and child and adult Headforms are used to assess the bonnet top area.
A car’s Whiplash score is based on both the geometrical aspects of the driver and passenger seats, the size and shape of the head restraint and its proximity to the occupant, as well as the seat and head restraint dynamic performance during an actual crash test. Performance is assessed using a seat mounted on a sled test, subjected to low, moderate and higher test severities representing a range of crash forces believed to cause injury.
ESC technical testing is in its infancy. There is as yet no single reliable test to assess the technical performance of individual systems. Therefore, Euro NCAP currently rewards manufacturers for fitting ESC and does not carry out technical assessments.
Seat belt reminder tests involve trained inspectors performing many tests on each system. Cars are driven on test tracks and belts are buckled and unbuckled. The loudness, and duration of the audible signal is assessed; the position and clarity of any visual warning is checked to ensure that it is visible to occupants of different sizes.
The functionality of Speed limitation devices is considered to make sure that the system can be set and unset easily and without undue distraction to the driver. The clarity of the signals given to the driver are assessed to make sure that there is no confusion about the current set maximum and to ensure that a suitable warning is given if the system is unable to limit the speed to that maximum. For active systems, a check is made to ensure the system is able to limit the speed of a car to the maximum set by the driver. At each of three speeds, the accuracy with which the set maximum can be maintained is determined.
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QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE YOU BUY
Make sure you do your homework before entering a car showroom. Compare different cars within the same category and see which one offers more safety features as standard (rather than as expensive extras).
What safety features are included in the price of the car?
What’s its Euro NCAP rating (check this before you arrive, to ensure the information you’re given is correct). If its Euro NCAP score suggests there’s room for improvement, then feel free to challenge the sales executive. Ask for an explanation.
Equally important, what features are not included and why are they not included?
How much will I have to pay for each non-standard feature?
What type of seat belts are fitted in the rear? What about child seat fixings?
Ask for an explanation of any safety features if you’re unsure.
And, of course, check that you can sit comfortably with as good a view around you as possible and head restraints correctly attached.
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What was the first five star car tested by Euro NCAP?
The Renault Laguna was awarded five stars in June, 2001. Prior to that, the first four star car for occupant protection was the Volvo S40, awarded its stars in July 1997.
Is a four star car from one group less safe than a five star car from another group?
You can really only make accurate comparisons between cars in the same group. The frontal test mirrors a crash between two cars of similar size. A heavier car or one with a higher structure will tend to have an advantage if it impacts a smaller car. The Euro NCAP results cannot be used to predict the outcome of such crashes.
Since manufacturers know what the Euro NCAP tests are, surely they can just design their cars to perform well in them, never mind what the cars may actually endure in the ‘real world’?
Vehicle manufacturers have to design and test their cars to meet many more safety issues than are tested in the Euro NCAP tests. However, some manufacturers use the Euro NCAP procedures as an in-house target/standard for those aspects that are tested.
If a certain model of car has been crash-tested by Euro NCAP, does that mean that every other model in the range gets that rating, too?
The Euro NCAP ratings only apply to the variant tested, though Euro NCAP does allow manufacturers to use the star rating in generic advertising of a car model.
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The Euro NCAP website (www.euroncap.com) gives a full explanation of the tests and the ratings. You can also look up any car tested by Euro NCAP.
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