Before the Euro NCAP car safety ratings were established in 1997, drivers were kept in the dark when it came to knowing how safe a car would be in the event of an accident. The only available guide was the brochures of the vehicle manufacturers which included impressively worded technical innovations such as airbags, anti-lock brakes and side-impact bars inside doors but no actual way of knowing whether or not they were effective.
So what is Euro NCAP and what does it tell us about the safety of a car? Read on to find out more.
(European New Car Assessment Programme) was welcomed by drivers and met with muted resistance amongst the car makers. Brochures and impressive sounding technical descriptions counted for nothing: Euro NCAP bought popular cars, smashed them into a wall in a laboratory and measured and shared the devastation that followed.
Today, Euro NCAP is relied upon by the millions of new car buyers in Britain every year. They turn to the non-profit organisation for impartial and clear-cut information on which cars are safe and which could be dangerous.
There are several tests, each designed to reflect real-world accidents as much as possible.
One of the ways that Euro NCAP measures the safety of cars is with crash-test dummies. These highly advanced human-sized dummies are full of sensors that record what might happen to a real person in the event of an accident. The tests look at adult and child occupants separately, with smaller crash test dummies used to simulate infants in child seats.
These cars are generally bought from dealers and the results are formed from a number of simulated accidents, which each make and model is put through. The test results are displayed in easy-to-understand star ratings, with five stars being the best and zero being the worst. However, Euro NCAP is quick to point out, that those cars receiving a zero star rating do at least conform to minimum safety laws.
This is a straightforward test of a car's resilience to impact. The car crashes into a barrier at 40mph and Euro NCAP measures how well its occupants are protected. This tests the airbags, seatbelts and general structural strength of the car.
This tests how a car would protect its occupants if struck by another vehicle from the side. This is the second most important test. A mobile deformable barrier (MDB) is used to impact the driver’s door at over 30mph. Readings are taken from the dummy in the driver’s seat.
It isn't just the car's occupants that Euro NCAP cares about. Pedestrians can be protected with good car design, too. This test simulates collisions with adult and child pedestrians and assesses how well the vehicle's design protects them.
Dummies the size of children aged 18 months and 3 years old are used. Head movement, neck loads and chest accelerations are used as assessment measures. The dummy must not be ejected from the seat or make contact with the interior of the vehicle.
Interior features like head restraints can mitigate the risk of whiplash injury. A seat is mounted on a sled test, and is assessed according to how it copes with varying levels of crash forces believed to cause injury
Features such as speed assistance (which remind you what the speed limit is on a particular stretch of road) and seatbelt reminders (which beep until you put your seatbelt on) are considered important by Euro NCAP
The Vehicle is driven towards a stationary target and the speed reduction achieved by the automatic braking is assessed at speeds varying from 6mph to 50mph. Tests are also done with the car closing in on another car in front, and following a car that suddenly brakes.
Modern cars include complex technology that helps prevent skidding. This is one of the most important developments in car safety, as it means that a slight loss of control or grip (particularly in wet or slippery conditions) can be managed by the car rather than escalating into a potentially lethal skid.
On the Euro NCAP website, the results of each of these tests are published in extreme detail. You can use the site to search for every measured part of the test, from whether the autonomous emergency braking works to the danger to individual body parts for infant occupants.
This approach is generally too complicated for most uses. In order to simplify things, Euro NCAP gives each car an overall star rating out of five. For example, the new Suzuki Swift has been given an impressive rating of four out of five stars.
To achieve a high overall rating, the car must deliver a balanced performance across all four areas: adult occupant protection, child occupant protection, pedestrian protection and safety assist.
So if a five-star car crashes into a three-star car, the five-star car will fare better?
That is not always the case as Euro NCAP assessments are carried out with a car's class in mind. That means large 4x4s aren’t compared directly to small city cars. As such, Euro NCAP results aren't always comparable.
Generally speaking, the taller a car is, the better it will fare in an accident. This is because a taller car will more heavily damage a lower car if they collide. As such, a three-star 4x4 might still come off better than a five-star city car if they crash into each other.
"But my car only scored three out of five stars?"
There's no need to worry. Modern cars are generally very safe, and a three-star car built in the past few years could be much better at protecting its occupants than a five-star car from 10 years ago.
In addition, a car can be marked down for design aspects other than simple crash protection and body strength. For example, a new model might lose points if it lacks a seat belt warning alarm.
And as manufacturers build safer and safer cars, Euro NCAP devises tougher and tougher tests. The tests undergone by cars this year will be more thorough and more demanding than those in 2008 or even 2012. And cars are re-tested and re-evaluated all the time, ensuring that a model's Euro NCAP safety rating remains current throughout its time on sale.
Realistically, the difference between a three-star and a five-star car won't necessarily protect you in an accident. Safe driving and correct use of the fitted safety features is as important in a 5 star Nissan Qashqai as it is in any other car.
Euro NCAP introduced a dual rating system in 2016, although not all cars will be awarded two different sets of stars.
For example, the All-New Nissan Qashqai has two different star ratings; one refers to the car’s score in its most basic specification, while the other shows how the car fared when fitted with an optional safety pack. These packs tend to include advanced safety technology like autonomous emergency braking and a lane-departure warning system.