Crash safety’s shooting stars

Changes to crash test standards throw the Australasian NCAP rating system into disarray

TOBY HAGON

wv MORE than half the 179 new cars on sale rated as having a perfect five-star safety score by the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) would not maintain that rating if evaluated to 2015 standards, which came into effect on January 1.

Conversely, some four-star cars launched in 2014 would have achieved five-star safety endorsements if their Australian market launch had been delayed until 2015, or if the manufacturers had chosen to fit one or two peripheral ‘safety assist technologies’ (SATs) with debatable real-world bearing on occupant protection.

These discrepancies in ANCAP safety ratings are confusing for consumers, and could be costing car companies sales.

Increasingly safety-aware shoppers – including influential fleet and government buyers – who do not understand what the changes mean may be wiping recently released four-star models off shortlists for the wrong reasons.

Through its own marketing campaigns, ANCAP actively encourages buyers to “cross it off your list” if a car does not have a five-star rating – even if the vehicle is among the safest in its class.

Further confusing the process of choosing a safe car is ANCAP’s shift into a new “transition period” whereby the independent safety watchdog, which receives about a third of its income from taxpayers, will be locked into incompatible protocols from its European equivalent, Euro NCAP.

This loophole has led to at least one new car – the Renault Captur – inheriting a five-star Euro NCAP rating despite lacking what ANCAP describes as “vital” side curtain airbags that can save the lives of rear-seat passengers.

“The Captur is one of the small anomalies of the transition [to Euro NCAP protocols],” ANCAP communications manager Rhianne Robson said. “Obviously … there will be certain things that aren’t watertight in the transition.”

ANCAP CEO Nicholas Clarke points to recently introduced “datestamping” – whereby the test date of a vehicle is specified – as an aid to consumers understanding the year a vehicle was rated. But ANCAP only applies date-stamping to vehicles tested from July 2014.

“The importance of the carryforward of the 2013 rating for Renault and for consumers is that it’s actually a two-year-old car that’s rated to two-year-old standards, and that’s the message that consumers will take,” he said.

However, the ‘five-stars-ornothing’ message promoted by ANCAP means many consumers may not look beyond the five-star ratings or understand the distinction of a vehicle tested a year or more earlier.

Wheels’ exclusive investigation into ANCAP safety ratings shows many fivestar cars lack safety features the organisation considers crucial, such as rear curtain airbags, which ANCAP chairman Lauchlan McIntosh refers to as a “vital safety feature”.

Wheels identified at least 90 new cars rated five stars by ANCAP that

ANCAP in 2015

Cars new to Australia can adopt an existing Euro NCAP rating even if the rating is years old Second-row occupant seatbelt reminder is now mandatory To earn five stars, cars must now have at least additional technologies” previously five additi assist tech (previousl ive w ional “safety hnologies” ly four) Minimum occupant whiplash rating must be “good” (previously “acceptable”) New cars on sale in Australia prior to 2015’s new standards will not be re-rated

“There is an enormous amount of science and engineering that goes into this program. This is not a boxticking exercise.” ANCAP CEO Nicholas Clarke

would not maintain that rating if recalculated to today’s ANCAP protocols. They include popular models such as the Toyota Corolla, VW Golf, Holden Trax, Toyota LandCruiser and Ford Territory, plus a variety of dual-cab utes, including the Toyota Hilux, Mazda BT-50 and Ford Ranger. Most are missing only a reminder system for the rear seatbelts.

The new criteria and associated transition period has led to some cars with near class-leading safety levels scoring only four stars because they are missing a single SAT such as hill-start assist or daytime running lights.

Wheels believes ANCAP’s new requirement for a minimum number of SATs – on top of a sound crash structure, suitable airbag coverage, good pedestrian protection and other traditional elements credited with saving lives – could be misleading consumers about which cars are safe and which are not.

Some SATs are mandatory to achieve a five-star rating. They include ESC, side curtain airbags for the first and second row of seats, and seatbelt reminders for the first and second row seats.

However, carmakers need up to five additional SATs to achieve a five-star rating, some of which appear to have little or no potential for reducing crashes. They include a smart key, which ensures the “vehicle will not operate without an appropriate electronic key”, trailer stability control, which is relevant only for vehicles used for towing, and hill-start assist, which ANCAP claims “avoids the need for the driver to go through an awkward sequence of events involving the parking brake to hold the car momentarily whilst on a hill”.

One of the biggest inequalities with the ANCAP rating system concerns the protocols applied to the year a vehicle earned its rating.

A vehicle’s ‘model-life’ can stretch up to 12 years, so it’s not unusual for its safety rating to be many years old. Vehicles rated by ANCAP in previous years are not penalised despite missing now-mandatory safety features.

“We don’t apply our ratings retrospectively,” Ms Robson said.

“The ratings are particular in which year the model was launched generally. Yes, there may be a vehicle launched two years ago that doesn’t meet five additional SATs, because the requirements in that year were only three additional SATs.

“What consumers need to acknowledge is that they need to look for a five-star rating; whether that’s a car rated in 2008, the fivestar rating for that year is the best safety performer at that time.”

ANCAP CEO Clarke referenced fridge energy use ratings and also pointed to hotel ratings as facing

similar problems. “How does a consumer know if a five-star hotel that was rated in 2010 is the same as a five-star in 2015?”

Clarke said re-evaluating cars was unnecessary because “a car is rated to a standard at a particular date”. However, recalculating a car’s score would not require more crash testing, which is by far the most expensive component of the ANCAP process.

Clarke said recalculating the rating of a car is an involved process, despite admitting the physical crash tests have changed little. “There is an enormous amount of science and engineering that goes into this program. This is not a box-ticking exercise. There is complex processes in place.”

He said new ratings protocols He said new ratings protocols adopted on January 1, 2015, which saw the Suzuki Celerio – launched on March 1 – marked down to four stars for missing one SAT, was not indicative of overall ANCAP results.

“It’s pretty easy to sort of get hung up on a couple of what we think are more sort of outliers,” Clarke said.

ANCAP has tried to highlight the issues of older cars tested to older standards with its date-stamping.

But there is little explanation of the differing requirements as ANCAP standards have changed – including what occupant protection or crash-avoidance technology an older five-star car may be lacking.

This information is on the ANCAP website in a 19-page document available for download.

However, it reads as though written for industry insiders rather than less knowedgeable consumers, and is incomplete, listing six references is incomplete, listing six references to features where the assessment method is “TBA” (to be announced) and four where the definition of a feature is “TBD” (to be determined).

It’s not easy for buyers to understand why a car is considered less safe by ANCAP.

The difference could be as simple as the lack of an automated handbrake or the wrong car key.

Or it could be as serious as poor structural crash protection or the omission of life-saving airbags.

ANCAP’s rating inconsistencies give new vehicles released prior to 2014 an unequal advantage in car dealerships, and could give buyers false assurance that a vehicle rated five stars by ANCAP is safer than a four-star one.

The ANCAP message, by its own admission, is simple: four stars is not safe enough, five stars is.

But, as Wheels has discovered, not all five-star cars justify their top safety rating against current top safety rating against current ANCAP standards.

In some cases, a four-star rival may actually be the safer choice.

There is little explanation of what occupant protection or crash-avoidance technology an older five-star car may be lacking