Making an Impact: How the UK Led a European Wide Campaign to Make Cars Safer

Saving tens of thousands of lives in road crashes is a proud achievement. That is why the European New Car Assessment Programme (Euro NCAP) has earned the right to celebrate twenty years making cars safer. Together with mandatory crash test standards, Euro NCAP’s safety ratings have cut by half the number of vehicle occupant deaths across the European Union (EU). It is a little-known fact that this remarkable transformation in road safety was made in Britain; a success story of EU legislation and consumer protection led by British research and campaigning that won life-saving improvements which could never have happened if the United Kingdom had acted on its own.

In the mid-1990s Europe trailed behind the United States in vehicle safety. In response to Ralph Nader’s car safety campaigns in the 1960s, the US became the world leader in automotive safety with a framework of federal crash test standards and the first ever consumer safety rating system called the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP). In contrast, Europe relied on out dated crash tests from the 1970s, leaving vital safety features like air bags as optional extras, and consumers had limited access to comparative crash test results. By the mid 1990’s over 45,000 people were being killed in road crashes across the EU.

Research carried out at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) had shown that thousands of these fatalities could be avoided if more realistic front and side impact crash tests were applied to new cars being sold in the EU1. However, efforts to promote better standards were being systematically blocked by the car industry. A blocking minority of EU Member States (usually led by France and Italy under the influence of their state backed manufacturers) prevented any progress. But all this changed with the agreement of the Maastricht Treaty in 1991. To strengthen the internal democracy of the EU, new powers were given to the European Parliament to amend draft legislation. This created a new opportunity to overcome decades of neglect of car safety in Europe.

An informal campaign coalition was established involving researchers at TRL, civil servants at the Department of Transport, safety advocates of the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) and the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC), a Member of the European Parliament, Alan Donnelly, the President of the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA), Max Mosley, and the author who was running the FIA’s office in Brussels. This determined group targeted the stronger legislative powers of the European Parliament to strike a blow for car safety and consumer protection.

The opportunity came in 1995 with a long overdue European Commission draft Directive to upgrade EU crash test regulations. The Commission’s original proposal was weak, barely increasing the stringency of the requirements at all. Under intense industry pressure, the Commission had relegated tougher and more realistic front and side impact tests to a vague ‘second stage’ that would only happen after further research. This would guarantee yet more delay and infuriated the experts at TRL who could show that all the necessary procedures for the more stringent tests were already available.

TRL research had already conclusively proved the benefits of their proposed ‘offset’ frontal test consisting of a 56 km/h (35 mph) impact into deformable barrier that would hit 40% of the test vehicle; a procedure significantly increasing the forces on the crash test dummy. This, of course, is what the industry wanted to avoid, but they had overlooked the new powers conferred on the European Parliament.

Used to getting their way by discreet lobbying in the corridors of Brussels, the industry was caught flat footed when Alan Donnelly, then Labour MEP for Tyne and Wear, tabled a raft of amendments to require the immediate adoption of the tougher crash tests. Included in Donnelly’s amendments were expertly crafted technical specifications for the new crash tests which the car industry claimed were not yet available. These had inexplicably ‘fallen off the back of a lorry’ into the hands of the author who happened to be in a coffee shop in Horseferry Road just outside the Department for Transport!

The Donnelly amendments were then debated in the European Parliament accompanied by a lively advocacy campaign headed by the FIA. In an entertaining ‘coup de theatre’ Max Mosley asked the then Ferrari Formula One driver Gerhard Berger to give evidence with TRL experts at a technical hearing for MEPs, capturing far more media attention as a result. With Alan Donnelly skilfully gathering votes from all sides, MEPs unanimously adopted all his amendments. Caught in the glare of publicity, and reluctant to be complicit in industry delaying tactics, the Commission and the Council of Ministers duly accepted all the Parliament’s amendments. In a major defeat for the industry lobby the new tougher crash test standards entered force from October 1998, and for the first-time Europe overtook the US in the stringency of their vehicle safety requirements.

With this legislative victory accomplished, the next step was to emulate the success of the US NCAP. Launched in 1979 by Joan Claybrook, a former colleague of Ralph Nader and serving as the head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US NCAP aimed to harness the power of consumer information to accelerate safety. Claybrook began independent crash tests, rating the performance of US cars and then published the results. This created huge media interest and encouraged manufacturers to compete for customers through safety.

Back in the UK, TRL had long wanted to create a similar market for safety. In 1994, frustrated by the car industry efforts to delay new crash test standards, they persuaded the Department of Transport to launch a research project involving a first phase of crash testing based on their proposed ‘offset’ frontal crash test but run at a higher speed of 64 km/h (40 mph). The higher speed was chosen as it better represented the risk of fatal injury in a crash and made it easier to compare manufacture performance. Officials in the Department and TRL both realised that a UK NCAP acting alone was unlikely to succeed as industry pressure was already mounting to block the project. To side step this, they approached the FIA and the Swedish Government to propose a pan European initiative and Euro NCAP was born. The first results were launched at TRL in February 1997 and sparked strong media interest. One of the cars tested, the Rover 100, completely collapsed demonstrating all too clearly the inadequacy of the prevailing levels of crash protection.

Having learned little from the defeat over the EU crash test legislation, the car manufacturers organised a counter press event in London where they tried to discredit Euro NCAP’s results. Enjoying the prospect of a confrontation between consumers and industry, the media interest in the story simply increased. Despite the manufacturer’s best efforts no one could gainsay the disastrous performance of the Rover 100 which was withdrawn from production six months later. Meanwhile in Brussels, the European Car Manufacturers Association (ACEA) set about lobbying to prevent European Commission funding for Euro NCAP, but this too failed when the recently appointed Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, agreed to start up support for the crash test programme. Amusingly the industry even tried to restrain their own competitive instincts and agreed not promote Euro NCAP results in their own marketing at all. This ‘gentleman’s agreement’ collapsed in a matter of weeks as more successful manufacturers couldn’t resist boasting about a good Euro NCAP rating!

The most dramatic U turn on safety occurred at Renault. In 1998 Max Mosley and I were summoned to the company’s headquarters in Paris to see then Chief Executive Louis Schweitzer, who at the time was also President of ACEA. At the beginning of the meeting Schweitzer read a statement on behalf of the industry listing a series of familiar complaints about Euro NCAP. This task completed he then began a much more amicable discussion and invited us to visit Renault’s new technical centre just outside Paris which was accepted. Soon after Renault began to perform extremely well in Euro NCAP testing and was the first manufacturer to achieve the coveted five-star rating in 2001. Just before his retirement in 2005 Louis Schweitzer again invited us to Paris for a very cordial dinner at which he explained that he had not agreed with ACEA’s earlier critique of Euro NCAP but was obliged to read it. For his own company, he ignored ACEA’s strictures, and decided to meet the Euro NCAP challenge by improving the safety of Renault cars. Sadly, Schweitzer’s impressive high level commitment to safety has not been so much in evidence with his successor Carlos Ghosn. Disappointingly Renault’s performance in NCAP’s around the world has slipped a bit in recent years.

Twenty years on, however, most manufacturers now routinely aim to achieve strong Euro NCAP results. Over 87% of cars sold in the EU have a Euro NCAP rating and 79% achieve the top-level score of five stars. This has driven passenger car safety far above the regulatory requirements achieved by the Donnelly amendments enforced in 1998. Euro NCAP’s rating system has evolved to include advanced crash avoidance systems such as electronic stability control (ESC) and autonomous emergency braking (AEB). The days of Rover 100 death traps are well and truly gone. And best all it has been estimated that the combination of EU legislation and Euro NCAP crash ratings have saved around 78,000 lives since 1997. Today, although it is still unacceptably high, 25,000 (not 45,000) people die in road crashes across the EU which is now the safest road network in the world.

The Donnelly amendments that radically changed EU crash test requirements are continuing to be the gift that keeps on giving around the globe. They were subsequently adopted by the United Nation’s World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations in Geneva which promotes international harmonization of safety and emission standards. Today rapidly motorising countries in Latin America and Asia are beginning to adopt the same regulations that the EU applied in 1998. India, for example, is applying the frontal impact test from October 2017. Sadly, millions of new cars produced today by major manufacturers in emerging markets would fail to pass these minimum safety standards. In a shocking example of double standards, some global car companies are quite content to develop new models that they know would fail crash tests applied in Europe now for nearly twenty years.

To highlight this scandal of sub-standard cars, the Global New Car Assessment Programme, a UK based charity, supported by the FIA Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies has supported new NCAPs and start up projects in Asia, Africa, Latin America and India. Their worked has exposed top selling ‘zero star’ cars sold in major emerging markets today that collapse just as catastrophically as the Rover 100 did in 1997. Meanwhile TRL is continuing its research activities and released a report last year for Global NCAP which showed that in four Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico) over 440,000 deaths and injuries could be prevented by 2030, saving $143 billion, if they fully apply the UN crash test standards and support the work of Latin NCAP.

In the UK, we know that improved crash protection over the last twenty years has resulted in a 56% drop in car occupant deaths and has made the single largest contribution to the overall decline in road deaths from 3,599 in 1997 to 1,732 in 2015. (The 2016 figures are due to be released on 28th September). More progress will come as advanced crash avoidance systems like ESC and AEB spread through the entire UK vehicle fleet as part of European wide regulatory action. This raises the important question of Brexit and what will underpin car safety once the UK has left the EU? The honest answer is that nobody knows. The UK is a member of the UN World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations, but unlike the EU’s mandatory safety standards, this body is only a voluntary system. It is impossible to say how future regulations from the UN will be applied in the UK.

The lesson of the vehicle safety successes of the last twenty years is that the UK only gained effective control over car crash test standards when it shared its sovereignty with its European partners. Co-operation at an EU level strengthened our bargaining power to force an industry dominated by global companies to build safer vehicles. It is simply a matter of scale. In 2016 UK produced 1.7 million passenger cars from an EU total of 16.5 million. With a relatively modest share of EU production we simply cannot act alone on improved safety or emission standards. Even outside the EU, the reality is that Single Market rules will still dominate the UK industry’s regulatory requirements. The only difference is that, unlike twenty years ago, we won’t be able to influence them. We will be an automotive rule taker not a rule maker that puts safety first.

Recently I passed a serious motor way crash with three wrecked cars. The vehicles were write-offs with air bags deployed, but the safety features had worked and the occupants were all standing by the road side looking dazed but not seriously injured. Twenty years ago, in the age of the Rover 100, the scene would very likely have been far more shocking. That is why it is right to celebrate twenty years of better EU crash tests and Euro NCAP. It’s a bit ironic, but there must surely be quite a few ‘Leave’ voters that survived a serious road crash because unbeknown to them their lives have been saved by European action to make their cars much safer. Today as technologies emerge that can prevent a car from crashing at all the need for European and global collaboration on vehicle safety has never been more urgent. Whether in the EU or not the UK will pay a price of avoidable death and injury on the road if it retreats into isolation and policy-making irrelevance.

David Ward is the Secretary General of the Global New Car Assessment Programme

1 This work was led by Richard Lowne and Adrian Hobbs through the European Experimental Vehicles Committee, which developed the original proposals for improved front and side impact protection.