Car crash test `could be building-in peril’

SMMT attacks `serious flaws’ in vehicle safety assessments

By David Fowler

Crash test results published this week could cause car manufacturers to concentrate on getting a good score at the expense of a wider approach to crash safety, experts have warned.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders attacked `serious flaws’ in tests adopted by the European New Car Assessment Programme. The tests were conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory. Under the first phase, seven small hatchbacks were tested.

The cars were tested under the new European offset frontal impact test due to come into force in 1998. Cars are crashed into a deformable barrier on the driver’s side. The speed used was 40mph rather than the 35mph required in the European test.

One expert said focusing on one test could cause over-simplification. `Statistics from actual accidents are the kind of figures I would use to compare safety.’

Oliver Winterbottom, head of vehicle safety systems at Lotus Engineering, said: `Most accidents occur at 30mph or less. By testing at 40mph NCAP is starting all over again in a completely different direction.’

The TRL dismissed criticism about the higher speed. The SMMT said cars would need stronger, stiffer front ends, which could make them more `aggressive’ to occupants of other vehicles, possibly causing more injuries.

Adrian Hobbs, TRL’s head of crashworthiness, said car makers had published no data to back this up. TRL tests suggested that cars that do well in offset testing were less aggressive.

Researchers at Warwick Manufacturing Group said protecting occupants required a car to be designed to absorb energy so the rate of deceleration is not so fast as to cause injury to passengers. This requires a longer crumple zone, created by making the car longer or designing the engine to slide away in an impact, as in the Ford Ka and in the new Mercedes A-series. However there was a danger sophisticated engineering would cost too much.

Winterbottom feared pressure on designers to score well in the published tests and go for a bare pass rather than a really good score on tests where results would not be published.

The tests were funded by the UK Government, the Swedish National Road Administration, the Federation International de l’Automobile, 24 consumer groups under International Testing, the AA, and RAC.