By: Graham Eagle
We’re all too familiar with the news cycle before and during the Easter holidays. Government and road-traffic officials plead with motorists to avoid speeding, not to overtake unless it is safe to do so, and not to drink and drive. This is usually followed by announcements of an increase in active traffic policing, roadblocks and speed-limit enforcement. The result each year? Unfortunately, very little. Our official road death toll stubbornly remains between 12 500 to 14 000 deaths per year; that is the equivalent of approximately 23 deaths per 100 000 of the population! To put that into perspective, the road death rate across the whole of the African continent is approximately 27 per 100 000, the US sits at 12 and Europe at nine deaths per 100 000 population.
With up to 85% of fatalities attributed to human factors, it’s clear the publicity and efforts of traffic authorities have had no meaningful impact on drivers’ attitudes and behaviour. It has, however, increased awareness of safety features and brought safety ratings to the fore, with buyers increasingly confirming whether specific safety features are fitted and whether any safety rating scores exist. While confirming safety feature fitment is straightforward, obtaining and understanding safety-rating scores can be confusing.
How does a five-star rating obtained for vehicle A in country X compare to a four-star rating obtained for vehicle B in country Y? What are the ratings of the equivalent vehicles sold in SA? And how do you judge which vehicle will reduce the chance of serious injury in the event of an impact or possibly save your life?
As with most other countries, all vehicles sold in SA for use on public roads are required to conform to a set of national regulations controlled by the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS), which took over the regulatory functions of the SABS in 2008. The compulsory specifications for motor vehicles are generally aligned with European equivalents but are implemented in a time frame deemed appropriate to South African requirements.
These standards cover a broad range of components and systems, many of which are safety critical such as lights, glass, mirrors, child restraints, seat belts and anchorages, brake systems and frontal-impact characteristics including rearward movement of steering controls in a crash. Before a particular vehicle type may be offered for sale, it is subjected to a homologation (type approval) process which requires the manufacturer or importer to provide the NRCS with evidence of conformance in the form of test reports from accredited testing facilities.
While providing vehicle buyers with a level of assurance that minimum standards have been met, conformance does not assist buyers to differentiate between products, particularly considering neither the fitment of airbags nor ABS is currently a requirement for homologation.
What is NCAP?
Unlike the NRCS, the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) is not a legislative requirement but a voluntary vehicle-safety-rating system created to provide buyers with information regarding the safety of passenger vehicles. From Euro NCAP established in 1996, similar NCAP programmes have since been established including Australia/New Zealand, the ASEAN countries, China, Korea, Japan, Latin America and the US (IIHS/HLDI).
Global NCAP, a major project of the Towards Zero Foundation, serves as the platform for co-operation among the different programmes and promotes the universal adoption of the United Nations’ most important motor vehicle safety standards. Despite not being a legislative requirement, NCAP reports and ratings are well covered in the media and awareness levels among consumers is high. Consumer demands have resulted in high levels of co-operation with NCAP by motor manufacturers that wish to ensure their vehicles will achieve the required ratings.
Euro NCAP testing procedures
Compared to the compulsory national regulations which focus on the performance of vehicle components and systems, the focus of NCAP testing has always been on crashworthiness: how well a vehicle protects its occupants in various types of collision. This has been expanded to include vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists and, more recently, the fitment of safety assist systems that contribute to collision avoidance. The safety rating is determined from percentage scores for Adult Occupant, Child Occupant, Vulnerable Road Users and Safety Assist, obtained in a series of controlled vehicle tests which represent real-life accident scenarios.
The Adult and Child Occupant scoring follows a series of vehicle impact tests – frontal offset, frontal full overlap, side impacts and whiplash – after which the damage (injuries) to the dummies is carefully evaluated and scored. Tests for Vulnerable Road Users cover head and leg impacts and the performance of the vehicle’s Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB); while Safety Assist features evaluated include car-to-car AEB, occupant status monitoring, speed assistance and lane support systems. Ease of extrication by first responders after an accident, and the effectiveness of the system which automatically alerts emergency services in event of an accident, are also evaluated.
Understanding Euro NCAP ratings
To simplify ratings and assist consumers in comparing vehicles to identify the safest choice for their needs, the percentage scores are provided in the overall rating of stars; five being the best and zero the worst.
For a correct interpretation of the results, the model year, specification level and safety features fitted must be confirmed. For any vehicles built with material deviations from the specification tested, the rating will not be applicable. This is particularly important when evaluating imported vehicles. Consider a vehicle built and sold in country A, where it has a certain star rating, is also built in the same factory for export to country B. If any safety-related features have been removed from the export-specification vehicle, for cost saving or any other reasons related to the export destination, the safety rating cannot be applied to the exported version.
Keeping pace with new technological innovations, the five-star safety rating system continuously evolves with existing tests revised, new requirements added and star levels adjusted.
Different NCAP standards
While all carry the NCAP name, the various NCAPs are not identical. Reasons for differences include local market conditions and the level of development of each local motor industry. Euro NCAP has been developed over 25 years in mature and sophisticated markets and is the NCAP benchmark. It would be unrealistic to expect an emerging market – with a relatively new motor manufacturing industry producing basic low-priced cars – to be able to match European safety levels. With the support of Global NCAP, many of the newer NCAPs are progressively working towards alignment with Euro NCAP and, in 2018, this was achieved by the Australasian programme, ANCAP.
NCAP in South Africa
In 2017, Global NCAP, in conjunction with the Automobile Association of South Africa, launched Safer Cars for Africa to promote safer cars across the continent. By the end of 2020, a total of 15 vehicles had been tested to the Latin NCAP standard, with the decision that this would be most appropriate for use in Africa.
Vehicles selected for testing were mainly entry-level or at the low end of the pricing spectrum; typically, vehicles with safety features minimised or removed for cost reasons, or older models on extended lifecycles. Several results were a cause of concern, with poor protection for occupants and a high likelihood of serious injury, and some manufacturers have since responded by adding additional safety features. Safety campaigners argue it is irresponsible to sell vehicles that do not comply with a minimum “acceptable” level of safety but it remains legal to do so and the market continues to demand them, as confirmed by their sales figures.
The next steps
Many will argue that as most road accidents and related deaths are a result of human factors, road safety efforts should focus on this area: the 80:20 principle. Several programmes and initiatives – both government and privately funded – are already in place to address these human factors and hopefully, they will soon deliver meaningful results. Their existence cannot be a reason SA vehicle buyers do not have the same access to vehicle safety information as their overseas counterparts, or why vehicles that fail to provide the most basic protection to their occupants continue to be sold in this market. It is well understood that like any other feature in a vehicle, safety features come at a cost and entry-level buyers, through their purchasing choices, have demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice safety features in their quest for a better price.
Resolution of these challenges will not be achieved without the input from the national regulators, vehicle manufacturers and Global NCAP. A decision must be made regarding an SA NCAP, with standards that address safety concerns but also recognise local economic realities. Long overdue is a decision to upgrade national regulations to ensure vehicles may no longer be sold without basic safety features like dual front airbags and ABS brakes, nor with frontal impact performance so poor that serious injury to occupants is unavoidable.
Unfortunately, when it comes to people’s lives, time is never on our side and it is imperative decisions are soon made and implemented as a matter of priority.