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John Swift reviews the Euro NCAP programme after it's 20th anniversary

John Swift reviews the Euro NCAP programme after it's 20th anniversary


John Swift, Motoring journalist and featured author for Swansway Group, reviews the Euro NCAP programme after it's 20th anniversary.

If you've ever wondered why there are so many safety systems in your car and whether they're worth paying for; read on as John Swift reviews the Euro NCAP programme after it's 20th anniversary.

Thank your lucky stars that 20 years ago a programme was set up that forced manufacturers into addressing the fact that their products could be lethal.

Incredible as it seems today safety systems in cars was either so rudimentary or even non-existent that even a relatively minor crash would result in a best, a life-changing injury.

It was even said by some that building in more safety systems could lull people into a false sense of security and actually make them more dangerous.

Back then we drove cars without anti-lock brakes, seat belts only in the front seats, windscreens which shattered in a crash sending lethal shards back at the occupants and bodyshells which had all the strength of a wet paper bag.

That was then. Today our cars are many, many times stronger, we are protected by head, side and even knee airbags, the seatbelts lock you into place instead of letting you flail around like a rag doll during a smash, collapsible steering columns retract rather than become spears aimed at the driver’s chest and so on.

Two crash test dummies in the front seats with the airbags deployed.

And of course, as well as these `passive’ benefits we increasingly have `active’ systems that reduce the chance of an impact in the first place such as automatic brakes which can apply themselves, electronic chassis control to stop a skid, warnings so we don’t pull out to overtake on a dual carriageway or motorway in front of a faster car and many more.

And it is almost entirely down to the EuroNCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) that was set up to expose how poor a job car makers were doing.

Disgusted at the death and injury toll NCAP was created to systematically test cars in a series of test smashes, producing results that allowed engineers to rank them with a star rating and because the tests were all the same, to compare them so buyers had more information.

The smashes replicated the most common type of impacts. The off-set frontal, such as if a car coming the other way strays over the white lines separating the carriageways and hits yours, the side impact repeating what happens if you pull out of a T-junction without looking, and so on.

Crash test dummies were wired up so the scientists could measure the forces on them and predict whether a smash would be survivable or not and if it was, approximately with what degree of injury.

In the first test, of seven popular ‘super-mini’ sized cars, the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo each achieved three stars out of the then maximum of four, based on protection levels offered to adult occupants.

The top-selling Rover 100 (formerly the ‘Metro’) practically collapsed and was given just one star while the Fiat Punto, Nissan Micra, Vauxhall Corsa and Renault Clio achieved only two stars.

Cream Austin Mini Metro

Manufacturers complained that the tests were impossibly and unrealistically severe and that there was nothing they could do without pushing up the cost of cars beyond the point that people could afford them.

But just five months after that first test Volvo’s s S40 became the first to get a four star rating and the company used that result brilliantly in its advertising.

Suddenly safety sold cars and the rest, as they say, is history.

The four star grading was later extended to five as NCAP began to take in active safety systems as well as the passive.

You might think that all cars today would have the five star rating but shockingly but some struggle to even reach two…

For example, although an updated one will be on sale later this year the Ford Mustang in UK spec which has been on sale since 2015 lacks many of the active systems found in many cars. Embarrassed by a recent two-star rating Ford has replied with  promise to upgrade its coupe. But it’s something to think about if you want a second hand one.

In the UK alone it is estimated that safer cars have saved 182,000 from death or life-changing injuries since 1997 and UK car occupant deaths and injuries are down by 63 per cent over the 20 years.

And it’s primarily down to NCAP. Whatever safety adds to the cost of your car it is surely a price worth paying.


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