The crash test that is making cars safer

Human beings have been crashing cars for almost as long as we’ve been driving them. There’s something about the combination of a two-tonne metal box and a human distracted by their mobile phone, morning coffee or screaming children that seems to make accidents inevitable. But as the number of cars on the road has shot upwards, the number of people seriously hurt every year in crashes is in long-term decline. Between 1990 and 2012, for example, the number of people killed on the road in the UK dropped by two-thirds, and the number of serious injuries dropped by almost the same amount.

The secret? Technology and marketing. A huge part of a new car’s appeal is its safety rating. These are dished out by the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), which spends its days smashing up brand-new vehicles to see how they’d fare in the event of a smash. How’s it done? Read on. And yes, we’ve got GIFs of cars being dashed to smithereens on the concrete blocks of progress.

The dead and the dummies

“Before test dummies, cars were routinely crash-tested using actual humans. Dead ones.”

Ready for your appalling fact of the day? Before test dummies, cars were routinely crash-tested using actual humans. Dead ones, which makes things simultaneously better (technically speaking) and much, much worse (actually speaking). Incredibly, cadaver-testing hasn’t ended, but the vast majority of crash testing – and all the testing by European NCAP centres – is done with dummies.


Crash-test dummies are disturbing to watch: they’re built to be about the same size, weight and flexibility of an average human, which means that when they’re flung about the cabin in a crash test, you’re watching how you’d be thrown around too. The skeleton inside is made of steel, and they’re packed with sensors measuring everything from g-forces to internal injuries. It’s these sensors that make dummies so expensive: a Hybrid III 50th Male Dummy, should you have the resources and need for one (we’ll leave that one to you), will set you back about £100,000. The head contains up to 15 accelerometers, and the rest of the dummy’s anatomy is similarly stuffed with measuring devices.

The tests

The tests themselves are interesting to watch: cars are propelled via cables into deformable honeycomb structures backed by whopping slabs of concrete, simulating head-on collisions, side impacts, lampposts and other day-ruining events. Cars are awarded a star rating out of five: what’s required to land a top score changes year by year as technology progresses.

Euro NCAP testing isn’t required before a car can go on sale: it’s an amped-up version of the crash tests required by the European Union. It is important, though: NCAP chooses popular cars to test, and manufacturers can nominate their own vehicles to be put through the wringer. Failure can be a PR disaster, and even slightly subpar results can cause consternation in a manufacturer’s PR department. Take BMW, for example, which felt compelled to put out a press release when its electric i3 scored an almost-perfect-anyway four stars.

Here’s the Tesla Model S being smashed up in its offset collision tests, as it smashed its way to a perfect five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests.

And here’s the Club Car Villager, a “heavy quadricycle” (a golf cart, basically), on its way to a somewhat less impressive score.

Side-impact tests are run more slowly – 30mph – but this time it’s not the car that’s moving. Side impacts are the second most common type of accident that cause injuries and fatalities after head-on collisions. The NCAP tests are partly responsible for the widespread adoption of side airbags – here’s a video of the Nissan Qashqai, NCAP’s highest-rated car of 2014, taking a battering from every angle.

The Euro NCAP tests move with the times, though. As active safety aids – traction control, lane-alert systems and more – become more widespread, NCAP is forcing manufacturers to stay on top of technology by incorporating new tests. For example, in 2012 it introduced automatic emergency braking (AEB) tests for cars that included the technology. Here’s the five-star 2014 Subaru Outback heroically avoiding a frontal impact thanks to its EyeSight safety technology, which supplies pre-collision braking if it detects an obstacle you’re not reacting to.

“Rover built the Rover 100 for 18 years, until NCAP tested it in 1997. It turned in the worst report card of any car in its class.”

The upshot of failing a Euro NCAP test can be very significant. Rover built the humble Rover 100 for 18 years, until the sadists at NCAP got their hands on it in 1997. It promptly turned in the worst report card of any car in its class: both driver and front-seat passengers were at grave risk of injury, and the 100’s single star was worse than any of its competitors. Rover stopped selling the 100 Series, and the company was left without a true super-mini to compete with the Fiestas and Corsas of the world. Those with a strong stomach (and ideally, no family members with a still-running Rover 100) can watch the carnage here.

“Where your standard crash-test dummy used to weigh about 76kg, changing diets mean that dummies now come as more substantial 122kg units.”

As for the future? Times are changing: where your standard crash-test dummy used to weigh about 76kg, changing diets mean that dummies now come as more substantial 122kg units. In the future, crash-test dummies may find themselves totally unemployed, as advances in medical research yield incredibly precise virtual dummies. The result: more accurate results and cheaper crash testing.

As for physically smashing up brand-new cars, there are no signs of that going anywhere. It produces results: when NCAP changed its testing methodology to reward manufacturers that installed side airbags as standard, Renault changed the specification of its 2014 cars to match. Crash testing: safer cars, fewer fatalities, awesome GIFs. What’s not to love?

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