Safety body Euro NCAP is celebrating 20 years of its crash tests, during which road deaths and injuries have been cut by more than half.

Figures released for the 20th anniversary show that 182,000 deaths and serious injuries amongst motorists have been prevented since the tests began.

Euro NCAP began crash-testing cars in February 1997, in the face of major opposition from the motor industry. In the period since the star rating issued following each crash test has become the industry-standard guide to the safety of a car.

Today nine out of 10 cars sold in Europe hold a Euro NCAP rating and manufacturers are consistently meeting the top five-star rating.

Thatcham Research, which undertakes the Euro NCAP testing in the UK, estimates that deaths and serious injuries amongst car occupants have dropped by 63 per cent, from 23,000 in 1997 to 8,500 in 2015.

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

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The shocking injuries that would have resulted to this driver in a 1997 Rover 100 show how far car safety has come in 20 years.

More than motorists

The testing has not just focused on the occupants of cars, however. Increasing legislation resulting from the Euro NCAP programme has seen the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or seriously injured fall by 40 per cent, from 14,500 in 1997 to 8,500 in 2015.

While celebrating its successes, Thatcham Research is also using the anniversary to call for further increases in safety, and urging buyers to play their part.

Thatcham wants consumers to only buy cars that hold a top five-star Euro NCAP rating, and that have collision avoidance technology, such as autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and lane-keeping systems among their driver aids.

The safety body also wants manufacturers to specify AEB as standard, as this could prevent thousands of accidents, saving 2,700 pedestrian and cyclist deaths and serious injuries a year.

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

No time to slow safety

Euro NCAP’s Secretary General, Michiel van Ratingen is proud that over the past 20 years the programme of safety tests has helped Europe reach the lowest road fatality rate for any region in the world. But he also warns against complacency.

“Euro NCAP has given millions of consumers the knowledge and confidence to choose the safest cars possible, (but) recent years have shown a slowdown in the progress rate, so we mustn’t take our foot off the gas,” van Ratingen says.

“We want to ensure that Europe’s roads get even safer in the next 20 years, not just for car occupants but for all participants in traffic,” he adds.

Today Euro NCAP tests many more aspects of a car’s safety than when the programme started in 1997, and van Ratingen says more is to come. “Next year, we will test systems that recognise and avoid crashes with cyclists, and we’re lining up a very challenging roadmap for 2020 to 2025.”

Changing face of crashes

Euro NCAP has assessed 629 different cars since it started the programme in 1997. Four stars were the maximum available in the first tests, which analysed seven superminis. The Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo each earned three stars, the Fiat Punto, Nissan Micra, Vauxhall Corsa and Renault Clio two. The Rover 100, successor to the Metro and at the time a top-selling model, achieved only one star.

The tests included pedestrian protection and the best score achieved was only two points, which according to Euro NCAP showed that manufacturers were not considering impacts with other road users when designing the front ends of cars.

Manufacturers slammed the tests, claiming they were so severe that achieving four stars was impossible. But the Volvo S40 gained the top rating for occupant protection only five months after the tests began.

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

In the years since safety technologies that were non-existent or optional when the tests began – such as driver and passenger airbags, side curtain airbags, seatbelt reminders and electronic stability control – are now standard on most cars sold in Europe.

Today’s Euro NCAP ratings are significantly more demanding and cars can now achieve a maximum of five stars, awarded not just for how they protect occupants and pedestrians in a collision, but on the car’s ability to avoid a crash in the first place.

Yet manufacturers routinely achieve the top five-star rating, and then use the Euro NCAP results in the marketing of new models.

‘Shocking’ Rover crash

To mark the anniversary Thatcham crash-tested a 1997 Rover 100 alongside a 2017 Honda Jazz – a car of equivalent price to the Rover in today’s market. The damage to the Rover shocked the testers – they concluded occupants would have suffered life-threatening injuries while those in the Jazz would have walked away.

In an offset frontal impact at 40mph, replicating the most common type of crash on UK roads, the Rover’s steering wheel was forced sharply into the cabin, pushing the airbag to one side as the passenger ‘safety cell’ dramatically collapsed.

The driver would have suffered serious head injuries as they smashed into the hard dashboard and A-pillar instead of the airbag. Thatcham’s HIC (Head Injury Criteria) scale registered 3,000 – way above the 1,000 HIC ‘high risk’ threshold.

The bulkhead between the passenger compartment and the engine bay also collapsed and the driver’s seat gave way, which would have caused severe injuries to the driver’s legs as they were rammed hard into the dashboard.

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

A three-year child in the back seat would also have suffered life-threatening injuries – a dummy representing the child was hurled forwards, ramming its head into metal pillars supporting the head restraint and the driver’s head.

Thatcham describes the Rover as ‘crumpling like a tin can’ leaving its injured occupants trapped in the car as the ‘safety cage’ was crushed almost in half. The safety cell collapsed by more than 400mm, while the Honda’s barely distorted at all.

The car’s front end collapsed and absorbed the impact, leaving the safety cell around the occupants intact. After the crash the car doors were able to be opened and even the windscreen remained intact.

All the internal safety systems such as the airbags and seat belts were able to perform as designed, further protecting the occupants from injury. The driver’s head hit the centre of the airbag registering a HIV of only 448 and the most serious injuries to occupants would likely have been no more than bruising.

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

Buyers now rate safety

According to Thatcham CEO Peter Shaw, Euro NCAP has fundamentally changed the way that vehicle buyers and vehicle manufacturers value safety.

“In 1997, many motorists were still choosing not to wear seatbelts – only a few years later we were demanding airbags, side impact protection and other safety systems,” Shaw says.

“You are now twice as likely to walk away from a car crash compared with 20 years ago – these major changes in the way people and manufacturers prioritise safety are all thanks to Euro NCAP,” he adds.

According to Shaw the focus is now turning to crash prevention, ensuring that Britain’s roads continue to become even safer, not just for car occupants but for every road user.

“We have come a long way since the days when manufacturers met only the most basic, mandatory, safety requirements but we must continue to apply pressure.”

See Thatcham’s list of the ten safest new cars of 2017 at The Car Expert

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Which of these cars would you rather be sitting in if it crashed?
Andrew Charman
Andrew is the News and Road Test Editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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