19 Oct 22

25 years: from crash protection to crash avoidance

When Fleet Europe first appeared, international fleet managers looked for vehicles that would save drivers in the event of a collision; today, they are choosing cars that avoid collisions completely.

A quarter of a century ago, Euro NCAP strapped its first crash test dummy into the driver’s seat of a new car and drove straight into a wall at 64km/h. The crash, in a specialist test laboratory, was scientifically monitored and filmed in meticulous slow motion.

The collision, and another from the side at 50km/h, made for uncomfortable viewing. The crashes were designed to replicate real-life accidents and provide buyers with an independent assessment of the protection that a car would offer to its occupants in the event of an accident. Until Euro NCAP started to publish its reports, buyers could only rely on the word of car manufacturers when trying to assess vehicle safety.

One airbag

None of the first seven supermini cars that Euro NCAP tested performed well, scoring between one and three stars out of a maximum four. Reading those first test reports today, it’s remarkable how few safety features came as standard in 1997. The Volkswagen Polo, which topped the first round of tests with three stars, offered only front seatbelt pretensioners and a driver’s front airbag. The Rover 100 crumpled so badly that it was withdrawn from production the following year, after buyers deserted it.

At the time, car makers claimed Euro NCAP’s tests were so tough that no vehicle was capable of scoring four stars, yet five months later the Volvo S40 became the first car to achieve four stars for occupant protection thanks to its driver and side airbags (a passenger airbag was not part of the standard specification).

ADAS avoids crashes

Fast-forward 25 years to the Tesla Model Y, the highest performing car ever for occupant safety, and its safety features include front side, chest, pelvis and centre airbags for both driver and passengers, seatbelt reminders and pretensioners, and a host of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) including autonomous emergency braking and collision avoidance assist to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists, as well as slower moving and stationary cars.

The difference between 1997 and 2022 showcases the dramatic development in vehicle safety, from protecting drivers when they crashed, to avoiding the crash.

With more than 90% of collisions caused by drivers, ADAS is delivering impressive results in cutting the number of avoidable accidents and in reducing the severity of collisions when they do occur.

Driver risk and telematics

The fact remains, however, that until autonomous technologies remove the responsibility for driving safely from drivers, the person behind the wheel and the pressures he or she faces will be the principal focus for fleet managers.

Their task is being made easier thanks to the data and insights offered by telematics, forward- and driver-facing cameras and connected vehicles. Fleet managers can now monitor driving performances, identify higher risk behaviours such as speeding, harsh acceleration and braking, and distracted driving. This allows for fleet safety budgets to be allocated to technology and programmes that will deliver the greatest return on investment, from instant in-vehicle alerts when a driver displays higher risk behaviour, to retrospective online and in-person coaching.

Telemetry information is also proving to be a valuable source of evidence for corporate business practices that might need to change to build a genuine safety culture. Setting employees targets for client visits or deliveries that can only be achieved by driving too quickly or for excessive hours undermines fleet safety policies.

Self-driving cars?

And if we were to look forward another quarter of a century, it’s more than likely that self-driving vehicles will eliminate collisions completely.

Until then, however, safety-minded fleet decision makers face the same challenge they did in 1997 – to select the safest vehicles available and create an environment where employees can and do drive safely for business.

Image: Euro NCAP

Authored by: Jonathan Manning