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Which crash test and safety rating should buyers trust most?

Tristan Honeywill

Crash tests check the safety of new cars. A new “small overlap” crash test just introduced in the US by the IIHS is exposing weaknesses in some cars – intrusions into the passenger compartment and deformations of foot well areas. Other crash tests don’t seem to be quite as strict. So which crash tests and safety rating should car buyers trust most?

The simple answer is: support your local crash test. Even with a global model like the VW Golf, there are regional differences in the types of seatbelts and airbags fitted. There are also differences in the crash tests conducted by governments and by consumer organisations.

Sometimes the crash structure can be different too. In Latin America there are cars that look like global models, but are built to a much lower standard because there no legal requirements to prevent this.

You’d think everybody using the same crash tests would simplify things and improve safety for everywhere. However Euro NCAP has no immediate plans to introduce the US’ small overlap crash test into its safety ratings. To understand why, we asked Dr Michiel van Ratingen, the safety organisation’s head, to explain the tests and the real-life crashes that matter most in Europe.


Crash tests explained

Head-on crashes are the main cause of deaths and serious injuries for people in cars. They account for around 60% of fatallties. There are three main types of head-on crash: partial overlap, full overlap and small overlap.

“Partial overlap collisions are the most common and in Europe account for around 30% of all fatal crashes,” says van Ratingen. “Experts call them ‘partial overlap’ or ‘offset’ crashes because only about half of the car’s front makes contact with another vehicle or object. Because of this, just one of the two crash structures that run the length of the car has to channel all the crash energy.”


Partial overlap (left) and small overlap


Partial overlap (left) and small overlap

Full overlap crashes are the next most frequent, accounting for around 20% of all fatal car crashes. This is when two cars meet square-on and both of the crash structures at the front are engaged.

Small overlap crashes are the least common, making up about 10% of Europe’s fatal car crashes. The car just narrowly hits something so there is no direct loading to the car’s crash structure and the forces instead pass unchecked straight into the passenger compartment, usually through the foot well.


The priority for families

Safety experts tackle the big risks first, addressing the most common fatal crashes with crash tests. Most of these tests are against deformable barriers. This is actually a tougher test than crashing into a solid object. It causes the energy to load up the entire vehicle, not just the front end. It’s much more like what happens in real crashes. (Read more about how crash testing became more realistic here)

Euro NCAP already has a partial overlap crash test. And because more accidents are full-width crashes between two cars, these are a bigger priority than small overlap collisions. “A full-width test using small female dummies we have planned will save more lives by encouraging better seatbelts and airbags for mums and kids, not just average males,” says van Ratingen.

Euro NCAP will add this full width crash test to its five-star safety rating in 2015.

“The full-width test using small female dummies we have planned will save more lives by encouraging better seatbelts and airbags for mums and kids, not just average males”

Dr Michiel van Ratingen, head of Euro NCAP

So why doesn’t Europe introduce a small overlap test?

“The small overlap crash that the IIHS crash test conducts is against a solid, fixed object,” says van Ratingen. “This is severe but not as common in Europe as in the US. Europe has more car-to-car than car-to-object small overlap crashes. And the resulting injuries tend to be less severe here as our vehicles tend to offer better protection to feet, legs and knees.”

The US already has a full width crash test as part of the government’s legal requirements. As a result, US models already fit adaptive airbags as standard. Ideally Europe’s regulators would do the same. If the issue was covered by regulations, Euro NCAP would be free to introduce an independent crash test looking at small overlap collisions. However that’s not going to happen soon.

And so instead, from 2014, Euro NCAP is going to promote technologies that will help to prevent small overlap crashes from happening. “Technologies like Lane Departure Warning and Lane Keep Assist will help drivers to avoid these types of crashes,” says van Ratingen. “We think fitting crash avoidance technologies will be more effective in the long run.”



  1. JA

    Well, despite EuroNCAP stance about this type of testing, i’d like to see small overlap crash tests made by EuroNCAP anyway, that would make european cars safer overall

    • I kind of agree. It would be good to have crash tests in Europe that cover all the main frontal collisions. I think the legislators have a role to play here too, however. Despite the EU’s targets to reduce road deaths this decade by half, there are no plans to make a full-width test a legal requirement. Too much is left to Euro NCAP to sort out.
      Not everybody realises that Euro NCAP is an independent consumer organisation, not an EU-body. Every time I speak to ministers about vehicle safety, they say that Euro NCAP is quicker and more effective than legislation. I think that’s passing the buck. With a stronger legislative framework, Euro NCAP could do much more.

  2. Hubert Walter

    This proves once again that EuroNCAP is the long arm of the car industry in Europe. The small overlap crashtest would be an eye opener, because many of our European small and compact cars would fail badly. I don’t care if the small overlap crash is responsible for only 10% of the fatal crashes. If I am involved in exactly this kind of crash I want to be safe in my car. Volvo proves once again that it cares about the customers/occupants of their vehicles, because they build cars that are safe in any kind of crash. Most other car brands just built their cars to pass the regular tests, like EuroNCAP partial overlap.

    • Euro NCAP the long arm of the car industry? I don’t see it. I also don’t think Volvos are safe in any kind of crash either – otherwise we wouldn’t need crash prevention technologies. But I do agree that Euro NCAP could go faster on some things. For me, it’s crash prevention technologies. I hope they can solve the small overlap problem in Europe without a crash test. I’d like to see that addressed properly in their plans. In the interview, they were careful not to rule out the introduction of a small overlap test however. So who knows?

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