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Euro NCAP’s car testing saves 78,000 lives in 20 years

Nine out of 10 cars now have a safety rating

Twenty years ago, Which? joined forces with other organisations to set up Euro NCAP. £160m and 1,800 crashes later, almost every car now sold in Europe has a safety rating.

The February 1997 issue of Which? magazine saw the first crash test results from the European New Car Assessment Programme, better known as Euro NCAP. The test featured eight popular small family cars including the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta and Rover 100.

The cars were subjected to both a head-on collision and, for the first time, a side-impact collision. Once the scraps of twisted metal and shards of glass had come to rest in the Berkshire-based facility, big flaws were revealed in car design. Namely, the ‘safest’ cars in the group could not prevent serious injury, and drivers of the worst car tested, the Rover 100, would likely have died in the 40mph head-on collision.

This was the first time that realistic and comparable tests had been carried out in Europe by independent experts. Previously, car makers only had to meet basic legislative crash test requirements for new cars – the results of which were not published.

Two decades on, safety technologies that were non-existent or optional – such as driver and passenger airbags, side protection airbags, belt reminders and electronic stability control – are now standard on all cars sold in Europe. It’s been so successful, that it has been estimated that Euro NCAP’s testing has helped save 78,000 lives since 1997.

Every Which? car review we publish today still incorporates the Euro NCAP safety rating where available. If the car has been given a low rating, we automatically make it a Don’t Buy.

Outrage across the car industry

The industry did not react kindly to these tests. Leading car manufacturers attacked the tests, claiming they were so severe that it was ‘impossible’ for a car to achieve four stars.

Five months later, however, Volvo’s S40 became the first four-star car for occupant protection.

Helen Parker, deputy CEO of Which? and editor of Which? magazine in 1997, said: ‘Twenty years ago, we published the results from the first Euro NCAP safety tests with one goal in mind: that car buyers should know which vehicles are the safest.

‘Car safety may have come on leaps and bounds since but, ultimately, the same is as true now as it was then – consumers want to know which cars offer the best protection.’

Richard Headland, current editor of Which?, said: ‘Car safety has improved dramatically over the last 20 years. Back then we were highlighting gaps in basic safety design and lack of equipment like airbags and seat belt reminders, but today Euro NCAP is testing a car’s ability to automatically recognise and prevent a crash with a vehicle, pedestrian or, in the future, a cyclist, and all without driver interaction.

‘We continue to work with Euro NCAP and present its findings in our car tests. Together, we will continue to keep challenging the car industry to increase its standards to get as close to Euro NCAP’s original goal as possible: zero fatalities and serious injuries on the road.’

Which? Car Survey

Along with safety, reliability is also essential in a car.

While Euro NCAP can crash cars to find out how safe they are, it’s our annual car reliability survey that we use to find out how resilient cars are – or not – to faults and breakdowns. That survey is now open.

If you take part in the car survey before it closes on 1 March, not only will you help us find the most reliable cars on the road, but you’ll be in with a chance of winning £2,500 (T&Cs apply).

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