ANCAP tests between 20 and 25 new models each year and tapping into testing conducted by the European equivalent of ANCAP generates thorough, independent ratings on around 50 cars per annum.

Anyone looking to buy a car can check various models’ safety ratings – and the more consumers do that, the more car manufacturers are inclined to invest in safety features. 

 “We want consumers to have the best information and to demand the safest cars,” says Lauchlan McIntosh, chair of ANCAP. “It’s all about encouraging safety. Our publishing the results of these tests encourages manufacturers to make an effort to improve safety.”

Putting cars through their paces is an expensive and intense process undertaken at a lab near Sydney.  Engineers prepare cars precisely and consistently and place dummies rigged with equipment to measure the impact of an accident inside the vehicle.

For the offset front test, which I witnessed, the car is attached to a cable which sends it 100 metres to smash into a honeycomb aluminium barrier representing another car. It hits at 64 km/h, not fully front-on but offset, with just 40% of the car hitting. The speed, the angle it hits, plus the size and weight of the dummies inside are based on typical accident factors, determined by statistics.  It’s over in a matter of seconds – albeit dramatic, noisy seconds.

We watch as technicians clean up spilled fluids and shattered glass, then go down from our observation point to peer inside the car. All the airbags are inflated, the seatbelts have done their jobs, the cabin is in one piece and not compromised. It looks like a good result*.

 Wrecks from earlier tests illustrate clearly what a less-than-good result means. Two cars, one from 2005 and one of the same model built in 1989, reveal the difference good safety design can make. The later model is badly damaged, certainly a write-off, but the occupant dummies would have fared reasonably well. The older car, crashed at the same speed, has a caved-in cabin with foot pedals and steering wheel shoved back into the driver’s seat.

And that 2005 car would not test well today, compared to newer cars, because technology is continually improving.
“A car testing five stars a few years ago will still rate well, but not achieve five stars today because the bar is being raised and cars are improving all the time.”

 Instead of more stars being added to the rating system, the definition of ‘five star’ changes because people understand what ‘five-star quality’ means. When it’s related to hotels, for example, people know that a five-star hotel built five years ago won’t be as luxurious as a five-star hotel built this year.

“The general rule is to expect it to be different every year, as safety gets better.”

Today, a car must have a range of airbags for driver and front seat passenger, anti-lock braking systems, electronic stability control and seat belt reminders to achieve five stars. As well as the offset frontal crash, the model endures a side-impact crash at 50 km/h, a sideways collision with a pole at 29 km/h and a pedestrian collision at 40 km/h. This year, ANCAP is introducing whiplash and pedestrian protection tests, and in 2014 will add roof crash testing, so cars will need a strong roof to get five stars.

Other features, such as accident avoidance technology, inflatable rear seat belts and a host of other innovations contribute to the overall score and some will eventually become mandatory.

“We negotiate with the industry on what needs to be the focus,” says Nicholas Clarke, ANCAP’s Business Manager. “And some of the five-star cars today already have extra technology – manufacturers are rolling out new technology as fast as they can.”

More and more cars are being tested now, and more and more are getting five-star results. And while not everyone buys cars new, safer design trickles down into the second-hand market. A check on the ANCAP website reveals older models that scored well in their day are the best option for safety-conscious motorists.  

Yes, you can buy a new hatchback for $15,000 but with three stars, it is a high risk. For the same money you can buy an older, but safer option.

Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue

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