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How Safe is Your Car? PDF Print E-mail

{mosgoogle right}The European motor manufacturers are invited to submit their cars for crash tests under the European New Car Assessment Programme, with stars awarded according to the success of those tests.  As you will see, all is not as it sometimes appears.

Tests under the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP) determine whether the manufacturer is serious about safety. In a number of tests, frontal impact, side impact and pedestrian safety are all given ratings under a strict protocol laid down by the EuroNCAP authorities.

Nissan Pathfinder
Nissan Pathfinder
EuroNCAP members include Thatcham, representing British motor insurers; the Swedish National Road Administration; the Paris-based Sécurité Routière; the FIA; departments for transport of the UK, the Netherlands, France and Catalonia; Germany’s motoring club, the ADAC; and the International Consumer Research & Testing (ICRT) which represents European consumer organisations.

The assessment programme was initially instigated in 1997 by Max Mosley, president of the FIA, to which of course the HKAA is affiliated.  Mosley believes strongly that safety is everyone’s responsibility and that it was necessary to find a way of improving safety for both occupants of passenger vehicles and pedestrians who may be struck by these vehicles.

The statistics are particularly revealing and indicate why Mosley was so determined to improve vehicle safety.  In the European Union alone – before the incorporation of the new states late last year – 12,400 pedestrians and cyclists are killed each year, with almost 300,000 seriously injured.  The EU has been advised that up to 1,700 fatalities and 42,000 serious injuries to this segment of road users could be avoided if manufacturers produced cars that were compliant with the latest requirements.

Nissan Pathfinder
Nissan Pathfinder
It is believed, following extensive research, that cars with a 3- or 4-star rating are up to 30 per cent safer for their occupants than a car with two stars or with no rating at all.

In an impassioned speech late last year at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, chairman of EuroNCAP, Professor Claes Tingvall, said dramatically, “The killing has got to stop.”  The professor was referring specifically to the fact that many motor manufacturers are failing to introduce long awaited design improvements, resulting in tens of thousands of people being killed each year.

Professor Tingvall is the Director of Traffic Safety at the Swedish National Road Admnistration and has a widely regarded international reputation in the field of accident and traffic research.  He was also at one time attached to Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia.

During his speech in Madrid, Professor Tingvall went on to say that he was disappointed that so few cars scored highly in the pedestrian protection tests.  “It is a major disappointment that nine of the 14 models tested just recently were only worthy of one star for pedestrian safety,” he said.  “We honestly believe that the public will be demanding more when they make their choice of new vehicle.”

The World Health Organisation in Geneva has claimed the situation is ‘a catastrophe’, said Professor Tingvall.

The eminent Swedish professor added: “Manufacturers make the mistake of thinking that people would not be interested in saving lives if they had to pay for it.  I can give them an absolute guarantee that they are wrong. Manufacturers are beginning to realise, however, that occupants of smaller vehicles demand optimum safety standards as well as those that can afford executive cars. For every day that we lose, five people will die and 115 will be injured (in the European Union).  Car manufacturers have had the ability to save this pain and suffering for years, but have chosen not to do so.” 

The frontal impact test, which generally all modern cars can pass reasonably well, is based on that developed by the European Enhanced Vehicle-safety Committee (EEVC), a body consisting of representatives from several European nations.  Frontal impact takes place at 64 km/h, with the vehicle striking a deformable barrier that is offset.

In the pedestrian impact test, again based on standards laid down by the EEVC, a series of tests are carried out to replicate accidents involving child and adult pedestrians, where impacts occur at 40 km/h. 

Unfortunately, vehicles that achieve high ratings in frontal and side impact tests do not always score well in pedestrian ratings tests.  The new Audi A6 scored the maximum five stars in frontal and side impact tests, but considerably less in the pedestrian assessment.  Similarly, the BMW 5-series registered four stars in the frontal and side tests, but less in the pedestrian procedures.  For the ecologically aware, the hybrid Toyota Prius scores high marks (five stars) in frontal and side impact tests, a 50 per cent score in pedestrian safety and an excellent four (out of five) stars for child protection.  The Prius was the first – and to date only – hybrid vehicle to be tested with its high scores proving that cars can indeed be ‘lean, green and safe’. 

Of the smaller cars, the Honda Jazz became the first so-called supermini to be awarded a four-star rating, while the best in class for occupant protection was the Toyota Corolla Verso, as well as BMW’s sports two-seater, the Z4.  The Peugeot 407 also scored highly in all tests, achieving five stars for occupant protection four for child safety and two in the pedestrian assessment tests. One of last year’s new cars, the Volkswagen Golf scored highly in all EuroNCAP tests, recording a maximum five stars in occupant protection, four for child protection and an excellent three stars for pedestrian safety. No vehicle so far tested has achieved the maximum four-star rating in the pedestrian crash tests.

Nissan Pathfinder
Nissan Pathfinder
Large off-roaders, as they are called by EuroNCAP, such as the BMW X5 and Volvo XC90, score high marks for impact protection, but pedestrians generally do not fare well in collisions with an SUV.  For occupant protection a 5-star performance in the tests is clearly the most impressive, while for pedestrian safety, four stars is the maximum. The off-roaders tend to come out far less favourably in pedestrian crash tests as their bulk and high-mounted bumpers tend to cause significant damage – and potentially fatal injuries – to any pedestrian involved in an accident with an SUV.

By carrying out frontal impact tests at 64 km/h (marginally higher than the speed recommended by the EEVC) EuroNCAP is simulating a car-to-car impact where both vehicles are travelling at about 55 km/h, a speed shown by accident studies to address a high proportion of fatal and severe injury accidents.

The injury risk to occupants of the vehicle is assessed using a number of sources, including data from instruments contained within dummies, examination of high-speed film of the test and examination by crash-investigation experts.  As there is no instrumentation that can accurately measure injury risk in certain areas, adjustments are made to take into account other potential dangers, including those to different sized occupants.

The programme has now introduced a separate star rating for child protection, which gives a rating for a combination of a car with specific child seats that have been recommended by the vehicle manufacturer.  The rating depends on the fitting instructions for the child seats, the car’s ability to accommodate them safely and their performance in front and side impact tests.

The dummies used in the tests have been carefully developed to replicate the human anatomy.  They are made of a steel skeleton covered with a rubber skin and contain a vast array of sensing equipment.  To build, each dummy costs in excess of £100,000 (approx HK$1.4m).  The role of the dummy is vital as the accident simulations rely on having a driver and passenger in the car during the crash to provide a full picture of any likely injuries.  In the pedestrian crash tests, simulated limbs are used to demonstrate what may happen in the impact.

The head of the dummy is made of aluminium, again covered in rubber, with three accelerometers set at right-angles, each providing essential data on the forces and accelerations to which the brain would be subjected in an accident. Measuring devices in the neck detect the amount of bending and tension forces as the head is thrown forward and then backwards in an impact.

Similar testing devices are incorporated in the arms, chest and abdomen, while the leg is divided into three sections: upper leg, lower leg and the feet and ankles, each with appropriate measuring devices to discover the extent of any distortion and the forces that would be applied.  The lower leg and feet and ankles assess the injury risk in a frontal impact which may deform the driver’s footwell.  Instruments contained within the dummies’ legs measure bending, shear, compression and tension, allowing injury risks to the tibia and fibula to be fully assessed.

Another important area of assessment is the pelvic girdle, where delicate instruments record lateral forces that may result in fractures or hip dislocation.

Manufacturers believe that EuroNCAP tests should be carried out objectively, but there is general acceptance that EuroNCAP has been responsible for improving overall safety standards.  Each manufacturer is advised of the choice of car, variants and options, although generally vehicles for tests are acquired anonymously.  If that is not possible, the test vehicle will be selected randomly.  Manufacturers are then asked to provide test set-up information, to recommend child seats and to make any general comments.  They are also invited to witness the tests and say whether they are satisfied with the way the test is run.

Wilfried Klanner, the testing and technical manager for Germany’s ADAC said: “The car industry is more and more successful in fulfilling EuroNCAP requirements and thus significantly contributing towards the improvement in vehicle safety. This can be seen in the latest EuroNCAP tests where 50 per cent of all models tested achieved the highest mark of five stars.”

Accident patterns can vary from country to country throughout Europe, but approximately a quarter of all serious-to-fatal injuries happen in side impact collisions. Many of these injuries occur when one car runs into the side of another, but in Germany over half such injuries occur when a car hits a pole or a tree.

To encourage manufacturers to fit head protection devices (head bags and full-length curtain bags), a pole test has been added to the EuroNCAP protocols. In the new test, the car is propelled sideways at 29 km/h into a rigid pole. The pole is relatively narrow, causing major penetration into the side of the car.  In the impact without a head airbag, the driver would hit the pole with sufficient force to cause a fatal head injury. The crash tests have indicated that a side impact airbag with head protection makes this kind of crash survivable despite the severity.

Future developments for EuroNCAP include modifying the testing and assessment methods to keep up with the advances in the design of cars, while new tests may be introduced in the future to assess more advanced features.

It is interesting to note that Australia has adopted the same testing protocols as EuroNCAP and has published results from EuroNCAP where they are applicable to the Australian market. 


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Crash Test – A personal perspective

Witnessing a crash test brings home to you just how much energy has to be dissipated in an impact and no matter whether it is simulated or not, it is a frightening experience.  Although the speeds are relatively low and you imagine that the car will simply come to a stop against the concrete block, in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

In a test witnessed in Munich recently, a BMW 7-series was mounted on a sled which was then propelled along a tram-line towards the concrete block, aiming to hit it in an offset position to simulate a head-on impact with another vehicle.

Although the test was conducted at 55 km/h (tests now are conducted at the slightly higher speed of 64 km/h – see main text) the energy emanating from the BMW striking the block was nothing short of frightening.  Car parts appeared to fly into the air, the horn sounded, the screen shattered, but amazingly the passenger compartment was intact, the doors able to open.  The dummies contained within the crumpled wreck were undamaged  - as would be a driver and front-seat passenger if this had not been a simulation. 

And it is tests such as these, carried out by all major manufacturers that are progressively making cars safer.  Critics would argue that the manufacturers are not moving fast enough and that the high cost of engineering cars to be safer and offer greater protection for the occupants is deterring the giant motor companies from speeding up the process.

The fact remains, however, that manufacturers do care.  Look at Volvo, for instance.  It built its reputation on safety. 


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© 2019 Jeff Heselwood. All rights reserved.
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