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by John Cadogan

The coveted five-star ANCAP safety rating is about to become significantly harder to achieve. From 2012, the independent vehicle safety ratings organization will include minimum scores for whiplash protection and pedestrian impact protection in its five-star determinations. From 2014, the five-star rating will also include minimum requirements for roof-crush protection, which closely correlates with rollover death and injury risk. The five-star bar is about to be raised considerably.

ANCAP (the Australasian New Car Assessment Program) will also require an ongoing increase in what it calls ‘safety assist technology’ from 2012 – although the specific equipment and systems requirements are yet to be released. In 2008, ANCAP added electronic stability control (ESC) and audible seatbelt reminders to the minimum equipment list for five stars.

On the drawing board are emergency brake assist, three-point seatbelts in every seating position, daytime running lights, intelligent speed assist technology, head-protecting side airbags, alcohol-ignition interlocks, and top-speed limiters. Nothing, as yet, is off the table officially, and in future the five-star rating might also be contingent upon a smorgasboard of safety systems like Volvo’s City Safety auto braking system, automatic crash notification like GM’s ‘On Star’ in North America, pre-emptive collision preparation systems like Audi’s Pre Sense, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind-spot warning, tyre pressure monitoring, reversing cameras or even night vision technology.

ANCAP already conducts pedestrian impact tests under a separate testing regime, which assesses both child and adult head impact and adult leg impact injury risks. It awards a score from zero to four stars based on the likely outcomes. From 2012, a two-star pedestrian rating of ‘marginal’ (ie mid-way from zero to four stars) will be required for a five-star overall safety rating.

A standard test like those already conducted by the NRMA will be used for whiplash assessment from 2012. These tests put the whiplash risk into four categories: ‘good’, ‘acceptable’, ‘marginal’ and ‘poor’. A whiplash rating of ‘acceptable’ will be required for five stars from 2012.

The roof strength tests, which will be incorporated into the five-star ANCAP rating from 2014, will be based on Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests already conducted in the USA. These tests apply a load to the corner of the roof near the driver’s head, measuring the strength-to-weight ratio of the roof. Ratings of ‘good’, ‘acceptable’, ‘marginal’ and ‘poor’ are measured, and a minimum rating of ‘acceptable’ will be required for five stars. What this means in reality is that the roof of future five-star cars must withstand at least 3.25 times the weight of the car itself to qualify for the five-star rating.

Above: During this decade, the proportion of five-star cars has more than quadrupled, while the proportion of cars achieving three stars or fewer has dropped by more than 33 per cent.

At the same time as roof crush ratings are incorporated by ANCAP, the minimum pedestrian impact rating for five stars will move from ‘marginal’ to ‘acceptable’, and the minimum rating for whiplash will move from ‘acceptable’ to ‘good’. Minimum pedestrian protection and whiplash standards for four-star cars will also be introduced from 2014.

The full list of safety equipment required for five stars in 2012 will be announced officially early next year.

COMMENT

This ANCAP bar-raising announcement was delivered at the RTA’s impressive Crashlab facility last week. Only a few motoring media attended. It’s an appropriate place for such a story to be released. As a part of the exercise, an ANCAP offset frontal crash test was conducted. The vehicle can’t be named, pending the results, but I’ll go so far as to call it an antiquated light commercial, with a body on the chassis. What might be considered a big, solid ‘tank’ in some camps.

In the offset frontal crash test the impacts an immovable barrier, fitted with a crushable aluminium face, at precisely 64km/h. Only 40 per cent of the front of the car hits the barrier – the 40 per cent on the driver’s side. It’s meant to simulate a defining kind of head-on highway collision. (The test pictured above is the pole test, currently an optional test paid for by the manufacturer and required for a five-star rating only. In my opinion it’s the most dramatic of the three ANCAP crash tests – despite being conducted at the lowest speed – 29km/h.)

Ten people worked for about a week to scientifically control the offset frontal crash we witnessed last week, and record the data for about one-tenth of a second during which the critical risk of injury occurs. To be blunt, with crash tests it’s an overload of foreplay and not very much sex … but the latter is at least extremely intense.

I’ve seen more than a dozen crash tests on four continents. Standing on the observation gantry at Crashlab, you see unequivocally that even a 64km/h crash that is effectively just an overgrown science experiment is a very sobering experience. There is a moment of silence – unscripted. Dummies feel no pain, but it’s hard to put yourself in their position mentally. And we all drive on country back-roads at 100km/h with nothing more than two whit lines keeping the oncoming traffic at bay – sometimes not even that. It makes you think.

Results are not known on the spot. It takes a great deal of time to process the reams of data, and validate the process. It’s even more sobering to walk out to the carnage and poke your head inside the crashed vehicle. My only on-the-record comment at this point is: Everyone who thinks a big, heavy tank offers adequate protection should be given an inspection opportunity like this.

Vehicle safety is very, very complex. In part, this is because there are so many different kinds of crashes you can potentially be involved in. They’re all incredibly chaotic, and bespoke in their own way. The results of a crash test are extremely complex.

What ANCAP does is make sense out of the complexity. It pulls a semblance of order out of the potential for chaos and makes it digestible for ordinary people who didn’t enroll in advanced mathematics, physics and engineering courses at university.

The ANCAP message is very simple: Buy a five-star car. It’s the safest. ANCAP chairman Lachlan McIntosh tells me there are more than 100 five-star cars currently available. “There’s no reason not to buy one,” he says. “There’s not even a price premium on five-star safety any more.”

Above: From two stars to five your risk of serious injury gets cut in half; from three to five stars serious injury risk drops by about one third. Worth remembering if you’re in the market for a car right now.

The other thing ANCAP is doing is, broadly, bypassing the Federal Government’s antiquated minimum safety standards for new vehicles. Car manufacturers know how important that five-star rating is to sales these days, and most go to great lengths to achieve it, even though a much lower minimum standard is in place for registration.

ANCAP plus the car industry’s vested commercial interests are, these days, doing a better job than federal legislation to make cars safer for the public. This is a good news story for ANCAP and the FCAI, but a sad indictment of the Department of Transport and Regional Services – and the use to which our tax dollars are put.

Sadly, because a good ANCAP score is not mandatory, some vehicles do fall through the cracks – vehicles like the Proton Jumbuck, Ssangyong Actyon and Mitsubishi Express, which purely from sa crashworthiness perspective really have no place in a modern new car showroom. And maybe also the vehicle I can’t tell you about from today…






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