Above the floor at Crashlab in West Sydney is an area which houses mission control and a viewing platform. From here, people watch drama unfold.

Crashlab is where ANCAP – the Australasian New Car Assessment Programme – conducts most of the physical tests to determine the safety ratings of cars. This is where stars are decided. Between one and five stars are allocated, providing instantly understood safety information for motorists.

There are always observers, but on a day in May this year there were more than usual. Underway were preparations for a car-to-car crash. Instead of a standardised honeycomb barrier to simulate an offset head-on crash, two cars were about to be flung into each other at 64km/h apiece.

At one end of the test zone was a 1998 Toyota Corolla; at the other was a much younger sibling, from 2015. The idea of the crash test was to demonstrate the efficacy of modern safety technology in preventing serious injury and death, compared with older vehicles.

Among those on the platform was AA Motoring Services General Manager Stella Stocks. She’s one of two New Zealand representatives involved in the governance of ANCAP.

She’s observed a number of standard crash tests before, but this was the first car-to-car test she’d witnessed.

“There were a lot of people watching who had been to numerous tests before. We all thought we knew what to expect, but when the crash happened, the sound of it made our blood run cold,” Stella says. “What followed was silence. It was eerie. Our immediate perception of the crash was that it was far worse for the older car than we expected.”

That was confirmed once the observers were allowed to get close to the wrecks.

“It was clear seeing the result of the crash that the driver in the older car would have had serious leg and chest injuries along with head injuries. I don’t think it would have been survivable. The driver of the newer car would have walked away with relatively minor injuries.”

Stella acknowledges the test in May was just one crash scenario. The older Corolla didn’t even have driver or passenger airbags, which would have gone a long way to protect the head and torso of the dummy.

This became more apparent after viewing the high-speed video from many angles – including inside the car – that showed the driver’s head smashed into the steering wheel before impacting and destroying the side of the dash near the door.

“What the test clearly shows is much higher protection provided to occupants inside the cabin of a newer car when compared with an older car. The differences were pretty dramatic.”

There are about 3 million cars on New Zealand roads with an average age of 14 years. About 40% of those cars were built before 2000 and involved in 57% of fatalities. Newer cars, built between 2010 and 2015, represented 17% of the fleet and were involved in ten per cent of fatalities.

Stella says there are many factors in a crash than contribute to serious injury or death, but it’s clear that older cars are over-represented.

She says many people think that older, seemingly more ‘solid’ vehicles will protect them better than a newer car which, sometimes, looks worse after a crash.

“This just isn’t true. Over time carmakers started to use different types of metals and steel making techniques along with better, high-tech design to redistribute the forces created in a crash around the cabin to protect those inside. Those design changes coupled with airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners hugely improve the safety outcome of everyone on board.

“And now with a lot of active crash avoidance technology available, even if it becomes inevitable that a crash is going to happen, the systems work to minimise the impact.”

Stella knows many people aren’t in a position to buy new cars, or even near-new.

“We want people to prioritise safety features when they’re looking at buying a car, regardless of their budget. Price is a factor for most of us, and often one of the deciding factors when the choice is made, but we strongly suggest people buy the safest car they can afford.” 

Dummy runs

In crash tests, ANCAP measures the impact on the dummies used in the vehicles. In the car-to-car crash test, just two dummies were used as 'drivers'.

Scores between zero and four are given to different areas of the body. The head, chest, upper legs and knees and lower legs are rated depending on damage to provide an overall score out of 16. The dummy driver of the 1998 Corolla received a score of 0.4/16 with only the chest registering any degree of protection. In ANCAP’s opinion, if the crash were real, it would not have been survivable.

In the 2015 vehicle, the dummy’s overall score was 12.93/16 – perfect scores for the head, chest and upper leg areas and 0.93 for the lower leg. While not unscathed – the driver could have had a broken leg as a result of the crash – a life would have been saved.

Reported by Liam Baldwin for our AA Directions winter 2017 issue

More information

Where to look
ANCAP uses a lab to simulate crashes, the results of which provide an overall score that determines a star safety rating of one to five. ANCAP also measures pedestrian protection and has minimum requirements for safety assist technology in order to achieve the maximum five-star safety rating.
The Used Car Safety Ratings, which are updated every year, are the result of data crunched after real-world crashes in both New Zealand and Australia. A one-to-five-star rating is applied based on how well the vehicle protects occupants in crashes. The higher the star rating, the safer the car is proven to be.
View a video of the crash

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