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Safety Sells in Europe

The star performer in the last five years has been French car maker Renault. Just 18 months ago its mid-size Laguna became the first car to be awarded the top five-star ranking for occupant safety.

A decade ago, marketing men thought it was impossible to sell safety (unless, of course, you happened to be working for Volvo or Saab). Today, car ads across Europe boast about how well vehicles have performed in the latest Euro NCAP (European New Car Assessment Program) crash tests.

The tests, backed by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and organizations like the U.K.’s Automobile Association, were first launched in 1997. The testing involves an offset frontal impact test at 40 mph into a deformable barrier, and a side impact test at 30 mph. There is also a ‘pole test’ to rate the effectiveness of side-impact head or curtain airbags when a vehicle hits a tree, roadsign or other roadside object. The pedestrian safety test is conducted at 25 mph.

Now you would think that companies like Mercedes-Benz, BMW and the aforementioned Volvo and Saab would be setting the pace in these tests. But the star performer in the last five years has been French car maker Renault. Just 18 months ago its mid-size Laguna became the first car to be awarded the top five-star ranking for occupant safety.

This year Renault performed even better with the Megane becoming the first small family car to gain five stars — just a week after the Megane had been voted European Car of the Year. Its executive class Vel Satis also won five stars. The two other cars with five stars are the Saab 9-3 and the Mercedes E-Class. Renault now has three out of the six cars so far to have achieved a top five-star rating. The remaining five-star car is the Mercedes Class, tested just over a year ago.

Pedestrian protection, the other key test within Euro NCAP, has improved overall, but for the first time one car, the Suzuki Grand Vitara, has achieved no score at all.

The 18 cars tested in this latest set of results are in several groups — executive cars, family cars, small family cars, superminis, off-roaders and people carriers.

All Euro NCAP crash tests for occupant safety are based on the assumption that the driver and passenger are wearing seatbelts, and as a result, Euro NCAP has introduced a new seat belt reminder protocol, where manufacturers are encouraged to fit seat belt reminder systems to their cars.

The Vel Satis is the third Renault vehicle to earn a five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash tests — one better than Mercedes-Benz and two better than Saab.
Chris Patience, head of technical policy for the Automobile Association, says: Seat belt reminders are vitally important, especially in Southern Europe where belt wearing rates are much lower than in the U.K., for example. All the safety gains achieved by Euro NCAP over recent years are completely wasted if drivers and passengers don’t use them.”

Max Mosley, the Euro NCAP chairman and president of the FIA, says of this year’s results that “whatever type of car you drive and whatever price you can afford, there is now a wider choice of models than ever before offering stronger levels of protection.” But not everyone is so smitten by NCAP. Christopher Macgowan, chief executive of the U.K.’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that Euro NCAP “still does not recognize the full range of technology employed by car makers. Active safety measures, such as assisted braking and stability controls, are now commonplace and have a significant part to play in reducing casualty numbers. Active measures are not reflected in these tests.”

He has a point. But how would you devise a test that judges a car’s ability to avoid an accident? After all, about 95 percent of accidents are caused by human error.

Will we ever get to a stage where a car will get five stars for pedestrian safety? It might seem a rather pointless exercise in the U.S. where so few walk. But not so in Rome, for example, where even on a winter’s evening, the streets are teeming as people, scooters, bikes and cars fight for position on increasingly crowded roads. People walked those streets long before the car was invented, and the thought that a pedestrian might bounce harmlessly off the hood of a vehicle if struck is rather appealing.

This article was provided exclusively to Automotive Industries by Interchange, a U.K.-based automotive business agency and consultancy servicing media and corporate clients. Anthony Lewis is a partner in Interchange and can be contacted via email at

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