Thursday May 8 2014

Crash tests: Making a case for your safety in cars

Crash tests are mandatory for all vehicle manufacturers and it is the reason vehicles are rated by a body called NCAP. If a particular vehicle scores less in a crash test, its makers will have to go back to the drawing board and make adjustments so that your (consumer/driver) safety is improved. Peter Mutimba examines what goes on during these tests and explains why they are important for you and me (driver, passenger, etc).

Having asked many people why they bought a specific car. The answers are always the same: Price, reliability, availability of parts, good looks, Wayne Rooney has it, and the likes. It is not very often that safety is mentioned. In fact, if memory serves, few people have actually heard of NCAP. You mention it and you draw a blank look every single time.

So what is NCAP?
I am glad you asked. It stands for new car assessment programme. This does not test speed or handling. This is a company that specialises in crashing cars; masters of destruction; demolition experts. The truth is, cars are just glorified death machines.
The accidents you see on the news every day, with scores of innocent people being slaughtered, it wasn’t because they were stupid. Accidents are written into the DNA of cars.

The question here is, what is the likelihood that you will make it out of it in one piece should an accident happen?
Better still, what is the likelihood that it will protect you from an impending accident? NCAP takes worst case scenarios and puts your car through them.

The purpose of this is not to satisfy some sadistic tendencies. It is to tell you what will happen when you are involved in such an accident. Obviously you cannot panel beat a human being and there is no company producing human test dummies….yet…so they use eerily realistic rubber dummies rigged with sensors.

They are designed so similarly to the actual human body that they can replicate as accurately as possible, what would happen to the human body in such circumstances. Allow me to take you through the standard tests, and next time we shall explore the scores of the car you are most likely driving. Someone is going to be driving more carefully after this.

Autonomous emergency braking
The key word here is autonomous. Basically: not requiring your input. This one tests whether your car will be able to apply the brakes on its own if it detects an unavoidable collision. This is pretty advanced technology that at the moment is reserved for a select few, eye wateringly expensive cars like the Mercedes Benz S-Class.

Frontal impact
The most common accidents involve head on collisions, so this test is right up there with the most important you will find. The car is crashed into a barrier at 60 kilometres per hour.
That speed is sufficient to give them a good idea. Now, according to, contact between the occupant and intruding parts of the passenger compartment is the main cause of serious and fatal injuries.
The success of the test is measured by how much contact there is between the dummy and the interior of the car.
Do the doors remain intact or do they get bent out of shape? Does the engine invade the passengers’ compartment? Does the frame of the car remain intact to protect those inside? These are all questions that mean the difference between life and death.

Car to car side impact
In this one, one car is crashed into the side of another, again at 60km/hr. This is what happens when someone decides to enter an intersection without looking, or chooses to ignore the other driver’s right of way. The side impact airbags should sufficiently protect the passenger and cushion the blow. The doors and the frame are supposed to be strong enough to minimise the damage done to the occupants.

Pole side impact
This one simulates what will happen should there be impact from the side with a narrow object say a pole or a tree. This is actually more violent than the previous test and the videos are pretty gruesome.
A narrow object intrudes much further than a car for example and causes significantly more damage. This is where curtain airbags come into play. They should protect the occupants from going through the windows sideways or from suffering severe head injury from the impact. So, does your car have curtain airbags?

Whiplash is a term used to mean the distortion or awkward movement of the spine in instances of sudden rear end impact. What if you have to apply the brakes instantly to save a child (or to avoid joining a mob beating a thief) and the car behind you crashes into you. How much of this impact will be transferred to your spine?
The sad fact is, these injuries are incredibly difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. You are better off in a car with the seats and the head rests designed to protect you.

Child protection
This test uses a dummy to represent a child of up to four years of age. How much contact is there between the interior of car and the child in the event of an accident? Does the child remain strapped in? Can the resultant forces be sufficiently absorbed to minimise damage?

Pedestrian protection
You are cruising down that slope that leads to Game Lugogo and a pedestrian shows up out of thin air. He attempts to run left, has a change of heart and decides to run the other way. The direction you have just chosen to swerve to avoid him. Even when you apply the brakes you will hit him at considerable speed.
Pedestrian protection simulates damage limitation. Is the nose of the car low enough to avoid damaging the knee?
What happens if the head hits the bonnet? Is it absorbent enough to bounce the head off and limit brain injury? These are pretty dire scenarios that don’t make for very enjoyable reading, but it is good to be armed with this knowledge so you can make informed decisions.

Electronic stability control
We have discussed ESC before. It is the ability for the car to remain stable and in control in less than ideal conditions. It is tested by changing lanes instantly at 80kph to simulate what should happen should you be forced to swerve suddenly at high speed.

You might avoid the obstacle. But will the car be stable enough or turn into a rampaging beast that will lead you into the swamp?
Every car manufacturer is required by law to take their car through these crush tests and have a rating.
Next time, we shall explore how some of the most popular cars in Uganda scored. I am afraid the news isn’t too good. We may need to re-evaluate our priorities while choosing a car.