Democratising safety on the roads

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Occupant Protection Remains Paramount Whatever Your Budget

Jonathan Newell looks at how global test centres are demanding higher levels of safety for all markets in vehicle design for manufacturers to achieve highly coveted top ratings.

The safest cars always used to be the most expensive ones. If you paid for luxury, you also benefited from the latest innovations in active and passive safety systems. Now, the rating systems of the global car assessment test centres are representing consumers who are more demanding, discerning and cost-conscious than ever before, resulting in more choice of safer cars at all budget levels.

Car safety assessment

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) and Thatcham Research are all heavily engaged in testing and research into the latest vehicle technology, providing manufacturers with facilities to put their innovations through rigorous tests, often before submitting them to one of the global testing bodies.

In America, there is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and in the rest of the world there are the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) centres. These centres originally operated for the major car markets of Europe (EuroNCAP), Australasia (ANCAP) and Japan (JNCAP).  But more have sprung up in other markets, based on the fact that car safety should not be compromised based on market, a notion not shared by some car manufacturers: as recently as April 2015, one mainstream manufacturer received zero stars for failing crash tests for the Latin American market because it wasn’t fitted with such basic equipment as ABS and air bags.

Having test bodies for such markets ensures that safety is delivered to all and not just for selected geographical regions.

Moving goalposts

Not only is safety technology gaining more coverage across geographic markets, but it is also being made available to a wider range of models. The test and assessment centres are largely responsible for this greater take up in non-luxury markets. The reason for this is a constant reassessment of availability and changing their assessment rules.

Crash tests have been taking place for decades but the criteria for passing them have changed dramatically and continue to change year on year to ensure standards of safety stay in line with the state of the art in vehicle technology. A five-year-old car that was given a high rating when new would be unlikely to achieve the same accolade today.

The tests now reflect real-life collision dynamics. The frontal offset crash simulates the kind of head-on collision which involves a quarter to a half of the car’s frontal area rather than its entire width. The side impact test simulates one vehicle hitting the side of another. The pole test is used to determine a vehicle’s ability to withstand a side impact with a tree or a lamppost, for example.

Other rating factors

Perhaps the most significant democratising element of car safety assessments is other safety technology. In its simplest form, this means checking if the car has front and rear seat belts, air bags and ABS.

Consumers have become much more aware of vehicle safety performance and are demanding highly rated cars regardless of price. Now, models available from such manufacturers as Kia, Skoda and Ford have ratings that are just as high as models from the traditional stalwarts of safe motoring such as Volvo and Mercedes.

With driver assistance technology prices plummeting, such innovations are increasingly available for all. The rating system is applied to all types of vehicles tested so the fact that a model may be considered to be a budget brand is no longer an excuse for compromising on safety.

As technology develops, the NCAP rating criteria also develop. Passive safety systems and collision avoidance systems such as Electronic Stability Control are added to the inventory of required technology to reach the higher star ratings.

The most recent demands in 2015 from EuroNCAP to reach a five star rating are a rigid full width frontal crash test and the requirement for Autonomous Emergency Braking. This latter criterion has already resulted in some high profile failures.

Jonathan Newell
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