Ancap aHere’s a sobering fact. If you drive a car made prior to the turn of the century and run into something hard, like a tree or a bus, you’re four times more likely to die than if you hit the same thing at the same speed in a car built in 2015 or after.

Road safety has come a long, lo-ong way since 2000 and it’s scary news for anyone driving anything cheap, cheerful and decidedly second-hand. Especially if they have kids. ANCAP, the Australian New Car Assessment Program, has just released results of a controlled collision between two Corollas, one built in 2015 and the other in 1998. The photographs and especially the videos are quite remarkable. If you can stomach it search ‘Ancap Corolla’ on Youtube for the three videos.

In the newer car the door stays in place (although the window frame buckles outwards) the airbags fire, the cabin remains intact. In the 1998 car the driver’s door is wrenched out of its frame, the roof buckles, the steering wheel spears back into the cabin clouting the driver’s head on its way, the whole dashboard comes to rest on the driver’s lap. And the driver, although belted in, swings around drunkenly, first going forward to bang into the steering wheel and dash, then whiplashing back into a seatback that can’t take the force and jerks backwards. It’s only a crash test dummy but you can’t help thinking of just how bad it will look once it’s cut out of the wreckage.

Ancap bANCAP’s analysis of road fatalities shows that while vehicles built in the year 2000 or earlier account for 20 per cent of cars registered in Australia they’re involved in 33 per cent of crashes involving fatalities. But cars built between 2011 and 2016, making up 31 per cent of the fleet, are involved in just 13 per cent of fatality crashes. Do the math and the rate of fatal crashes is four times higher for older vehicles than for new vehicles.

The sad point is that the country’s most at-risk drivers – the young and inexperienced as well as the elderly and more frail – are often found in the most at-risk vehicles.

The simulated collision was a frontal offset test replicating a head-on crash at 64km/h, a big hit in anyone’s parlance. The 1998 car sustained “catastrophic structural failure with dummy readings showing an extremely high risk of serious head, chest and leg injury to the driver. It achieved a score of just 0.40 out of 16 points – zero stars” according to ANCAP. The 2015 car performed vastly better with a five-star level of protection, scoring 12.93 out of 16 points.

Ancap cThe ANCAP test is reminiscent of one done in 2009 when the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety marked its fiftieth birthday by crashing a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu into a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air. This was another frontal offset test meaning that the entire left-hand front side of each car made contact at 65 kmh.

The Malibu did what is expected of modern cars. The airbag deployed into the crash test dummy’s face and the seat belt held it in place in the driver’s seat. When the dust cleared the car’s front end was destroyed, yet the passenger’s compartment remained intact and the door frame hadn’t altered shape. With some feet, knee and elbow injuries the driver could have hobbled off to fill out an insurance claim form.

Ancap dThe Bel Air wasn’t fitted with seat belts or airbags, typical of 1959. On impact the steering column speared into the cabin, moving up and in and dragging the instrument panel with it. The dummy’s head crashed into the wheel’s rim and hub, then ricocheted onto the roof lining where it dragged for a metre or so. The windscreen was thrown from its frame and the driver’s door was torn open, both openings providing the potential for occupants to be thrown out as the front bench seat was torn off it mounts.

The driver was killed several times over. Even getting the dummy out proved difficult given the wreckage around it, which had driven its left knee up to its chest. Its right knee was broken off. The videos are on Youtube, search AIIHS Chevrolet 1959.

Don’t thank car makers for the vast improvements in safety and fuel economy over past decades, these were mostly forced by governments while the car makers mostly objected; one wonders what the road toll would be if manufacturers had their way. In 1971 a senior Ford executive told President Nixon that safety belts were a waste of money. They currently save 100,000 lives a year.

Published May 2017


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