Australasian New Car Assessment Program CEO Nicholas Clarke says a continued focus on new-vehicle safety from manufacturers and further encouragement from organisations like ANCAP to produce safer cars have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of deaths on our roads.
“There’s a good chance that we can halve the death toll in this decade, and if we can do that then we should be able to halve it again by the following decade,” Clarke said.
Australia’s national road toll reached 1292 last year, the lowest total since 1946. If ANCAP’s estimates are on track, that number could drop below 650 by 2020 and fall to less than one fatality per day by 2030.
Vast improvements to the strength of vehicle structures and the widespread implementation of airbags have played a pivotal role in increasing the safety of new cars.
Before 2000, there were no vehicles available in Australia with the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, and just 38 per cent of all passenger cars sold here scored four stars under the system. Last year, 91 per cent of passenger vehicles sold in Australia were rated four stars or higher, with almost three quarters achieving the maximum rating.
While ANCAP continues to raise its standards for structural integrity (this year it introduced a whiplash test component and in 2014 it will add a roof crush strength test designed to simulate rollover impact), Clarke believes the greatest potential for increasing vehicle safety is the proliferation of safety assist technologies (SATs).
Five common SATs are already mandatory for a vehicle to achieve a five-star ANCAP safety rating: electronic stability control (ESC), seatbelt reminders, side airbags, emergency brake assist (EBA) and three-point seatbelts.
Other SATs recognised by ANCAP as having potential to save lives include curtain airbags, blind spot monitoring, autonomous braking, fatigue detection and daytime running lights.
Many of these SATs are designed not to reduce to severity of crashes, but to avoid them altogether.
“If you can’t crash your car, you’re not going to be able to kill yourself,” Clarke said.
“[SATs are] not going to stop a truck losing its brakes and running into you and killing you, but we have something like 40 or 50 per cent of accidents in this country are single-vehicle accidents. If we can stop people running off the road or falling asleep or doing all those things we will cut a sway through the accident rate.
“I think we need to and we need to get to the point in five or 10 or 20 years where we’re talking about deaths in just the couple of hundreds not in the thousands.”
One of ANCAP’s greatest limitations however – and one it admittedly has few answers for – is testing SATs. ANCAP’s current procedures do not include any practical tests for SATs, and in the case of systems like Volvo’s City Safety and Mercedes-Benz’s Attention Assist, the independent crash tester largely accepts the manufacturers’ word on their effectiveness.
Unlike Euro NCAP, the local assessor does not test the effectiveness of the vehicles’ ESC systems either, meaning that the stability control system of a $500,000 luxury limousine is essentially rated to be no more effective at improving safety than that of a $12,000 hatchback.
ANCAP is investigating the potential of testing SATs in the future, but has no firm commitments to do so in its ‘Road Map’, which charts planned changes to the program between now and 2016.
This year, a vehicle needs to feature at least two additional SATs on ANCAP’s recognised list to earn an overall five-star rating. That number will increase each year through to 2016, when a minimum of six additional SATs will be required for a car to reach the maximum rating.
Contrasting the increasing complexity of vehicle safety systems, Clarke says ANCAP’s philosophy is a simple one: “Don’t go for one-, two- and three- [star rated cars] … four-star is an absolute minimum if you have to, but [we recommend] five-star [vehicles] every time.”