What we learned from watching a car crash test

Hard lessons learned the easy way.

The sound of the impact was jarringly loud in the enclosed booth above the scene of the crash. At the moment of impact, the car’s hood rippled and then began to crumple like an accordion. The first ripple saw the seatbelt pretensioners fire, yanking the dummies in the front seat backwards into their seats and bracing them for impact. The airbags came along a moment later.

As the crushing continued, the car eventually ran out of crumple zone. The crunch arrived at the main body of the car, eating up the windscreen and doing some real damage.

The driver’s seat dummy was safely strapped in, but it still got a lot of use out of the head-level side airbags as the seat shook loose and jumped around. On the whole, the dummies in the front seat seemed to have come out relatively unscathed.

The dummy kids in the back seat weren’t so lucky. Someone deliberately forgot to face the child seats backwards, so the force of the impact whiplashed the dummy kids’ heads forward in an unmistakably disabling motion.

It had taken days to carefully set up the crash-test dummies, but the crash itself was all over in a split-second glimpse of flying debris and a bang followed by the steady hiss of deflating airbags.

The once fully functional brand-new SUV would now be carted away and written off.

Just another day at the crash lab

In 1985, Australia’s car accident fatality rate was 18.6 per 100,000. That was much too high, so they invented road safety.

By 1999, that new invention halved the fatality rate to 9.4. Then the turn of the millennium brought a new generation of technology and another big jump down in the fatality rate. The fatality rate dropped to 7.7 in 2007, and by 2014, it was only 5.0.

Then 2015 happened. For the first time since the invention of road safety, Australia’s fatal accident rate actually went up. By 2016, it was back up to 5.4.

Fortunately, the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) is on the case. They’re responsible for a lot of those lives saved over the years, and they have a pretty good idea why road death tolls have started increasing again.

What makes a car safe?

“Experienced drivers, safe cars and good roads,” explains James Goodwin, the CEO of ANCAP. “You need at least two of three.”

These are the three pillars in the road safety trifecta, and all have been improving since the 1980s, with corresponding drops in accident rates.

The problem is that tests change over time as standards improve. A car that got five stars in 2002 might be closer to zero today, but still showing as five stars.

So starting on 1 January 2018, you’ll be seeing the year of testing next to the star rating, so you can compare like-for-like vehicle types. Autonomous safety features will also be required for a vehicle to be awarded a 5-star rating.

Ideally, Goodwin says, you’ll want to be looking for vehicles showing a test date from within the last three years.

That won’t always mean buying a newer car though. Manufacturers will be able to apply for updated results, in which their older vehicles are re-tested in line with current standards.

This will help highlight the old and cheap, yet safer, cars that are still for sale. You’ll be able to do the following:

  • Compare car safety based on age. Look at two cars with the same testing year, and it means they’ve been through the same tests. A newer testing year will generally mean a safer car.
  • Pick out extra-safe older cars. If an old car punches above its weight, a manufacturer might apply to update the test. An old car with a high score on a recent test year is probably safer than an old car with a high score on an old test year.

If safety standards are improving, why is the road toll going up?

From next year, it will be more difficult than ever to get a 5-star rating – but that doesn’t mean older cars are off the road.

“No one expected that,” said Goodwin. “That car was not unsafe in its day.”

He was standing in front of scenes from the video you see below. It shows a 1998 and a 2015 Corolla in a head-on collision. The dummy in the 98 Corolla would have died on the scene, while the one in the 2015 Corolla would probably have walked away.

That head-on Corolla test was very different in two ways from the SUV crash we witnessed.

First, it involved two real cars going head to head, rather than just one slamming itself into a wall. Destroying two cars for every test would be needlessly expensive and the results inconsistent.

Second, the now-trashed 98 Corolla was an old car bought second hand from a public dealership for $5,000 – for “probably a bit too much” in Goodwin’s words. For the most part, Crash Labs destroys brand new market-ready vehicles instead.

The numbers are clear.

  • The average age of vehicles on Australian roads is 9.8 years, but the average age of cars involved in fatal accidents is 12.9 years.
  • Old cars built before the year 2000 are involved in 33% of road fatalities, but only account for 20% of the fleet.
  • New vehicles built in 2011-2016 account for 31% of the fleet but are only involved in 13% of fatalities.
  • In 2015, the fatal accident rate among the oldest cars (built prior to 2000) was four times higher than the newest cars (built 2011 or later).

Incentivised to drive dangerously

Somewhat ironically given its function, car insurance clearly incentivises younger drivers to buy old and cheap. Inexperienced drivers might pay around twice as much for cover than better drivers.

This translates into more numerous and serious accidents, which lead to higher apparent risk, which results in even higher premiums. This means even more incentive to buy a cheaper car. It’s a vicious cycle.

The good news is that you probably won’t die in an accident no matter how old the car is. The bad news is that you’re about 100 times more likely to be left seriously injured or permanently disabled instead.

More than 100 Australians are killed in car crashes every month, but about the same number are seriously injured in a crash every single day.

This may also compound the economic cost of road accidents. When a younger driver is seriously injured, the lifetime economic costs, in terms of care needed and lost productivity over the years, are much higher than for older drivers.

ANCAP, crash tests and safety

Most of what happened in the crash test we saw occurred too fast to follow with the naked eye. Even at the sedate-by-freeway-standards speed of 64km/h, it was over almost instantly.

Cars have been operating beyond the physical limits of human ability for a long time as have features such as seatbelt pretensioners and airbags.

But there’s only so much they can do. If two cars have a head-on collision at highway speeds, someone’s almost certainly going to die, no matter how safe their car is. And so the next frontier is accident prevention technology to stop accidents before they happen.

But not everyone is keen on letting their car take the wheel. ANCAP expects increasingly autonomous safety features like lane correction and automatic emergency braking to be a divisive issue.

Against all statistical evidence, there will always be those who doubt that autonomous systems could be better drivers than they are.

Are they right? Probably not. As Goodwin points out, in a mathematically impossible turn, most people reckon they’re better-than-average drivers.

And what do we know anyway? We’re still incentivising unsafe drivers to choose the most dangerous cars available and then marvelling at the rising fatality rate. For road safety at least, the robots can’t take over soon enough.

Compare different vehicles

Boot Space ANCAP Rating Price (from) Finder Score

Honda Civic
414L 5-Stars $22,150 76.20%

Volkswagen Golf
380L 5-Stars $22,840 82.00%

Volkswagen Polo
280L 5-Stars $17,190 82.60%

Hyundai i30
378L 5-Stars $20,950 82.20%

Suzuki Swift
242L 5-Stars $16,990 76.00%
Seats Boot Space ANCAP Rating Price (from) Finder Score

Mazda CX-5
7 442L 5-Stars $28,690 83.25%

Hyundai Tucson
5 488L 5-Stars $28,590 79%

Nissan X-Trail
7 565L 5-Stars $27,990 76.25%

Toyota RAV4
5 577L 5-Stars $28,550 76.33%

Kia Sportage
5 466L 5-Stars $28,990 79.50%

Mitsubishi Outlander
7 477L 5-Stars $28,750 73.75%
Payload ANCAP Rating Price (from) Finder Score

Volkswagen Amarok
1020kg 5-Stars $35,490 85.00%

Nissan Navara
930kg 5-Stars $31,990 75.00%

Isuzu D-Max
924kg 5-Stars $34,800 73.25%

Toyota HiLux
924kg 5-Stars $39,490 73.33%

Ford Ranger
1085kg 5-Stars $31,449 81.25%

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