The safety of cars for occupants has increased five-fold for some types of cars after 10 years of the European New Car Assessment programme (Euro NCAP)crash testing programme.

Seen as controversial by the motor industry 10 years ago, the programme has helped to save lives across Europe. Safety ratings of similar category cars have gone from one star to five stars in less than a decade due to the influence of the Euro NCAP, according to the RAC Foundation.

Research shows that as far as the risk of serious injury or death is concerned, cars which score three or four stars in NCAP tests were approximately 30% safer compared with two stars or cars with no score.

NCAP was established in 1995 and the first tests were supported by the Department for Transport, International Testing, the Swedish National Road Administration, the FIA, the AA and the RAC.

The first cars were tested in February1997 and brought dramatic and shocking results. The worst perfomer for occupant safety was the Rover 100 (nee Metro), which was only awarded one star for protection in frontal and side impact. Up until these first tests the UK consumer did not know if a particular car was safer than another car in the category. The poor performance of the 100 had dramatic results with some police forces refusing to use these cars and some mothers refusing to use child minders who ferried children around in these vehicles.

The NCAP result is widely seen as the trigger prompting now-defunct MG Rover to axe the model line (whose basic platform was designed in the late 1970s) soon after, eventually replacing it with the Tata-made CityRover.

The motor industry was initially up in arms about the NCAP tests claiming that the cars were crashed at unrealistic speeds (40mph for frontal impact and 30mph for side impact). This was the first time in the UK that a series of crash tests had been conducted where the results were made available to everyone.

The UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) played a key role in developing these tests. All of the cars tested were bought anonymously to ensure that each was a normal production model. Since the early days more than £6 million has been spent on purchasing more than 400 cars representing more than 200 different car models. For the tests two examples of each car were purchased in order to conduct both frontal and side-impact tests.

After initial resistance from the motor manufacturers to the crash-testing programme certain manufacturers broke ranks and started to use the Euro NCAP results as an integral part of their marketing strategy. Now it is common to see ‘Euro NCAP 5 stars’ results in both print and broadcasting advertising, as well on rear window stickers.

It is interesting to make some comparisons between the first cars crashed and results of most recent tests on the current equivalent models.

The Fiat Punto and Renault Clio both scored two stars in occupant protection in 1997 but five stars in 2005.

The Ford Fiesta and Nissan Micra also scored two stars for occupant protection in 1997 but 4 stars in 2003. The VW Polo scored three stars in 1997 and four stars in 2002.

“In the [current] Fiat Punto” TRL said, “the structure surrounding the occupants has been drastically improved, providing a rigid safety cell which is more capable of withstanding the impact forces. In addition to improvements in structural safety, advanced occupant restraint systems have also been developed which provide greater control of the occupants’ deceleration during an impact. Such systems include dual seat-belt pretensioners and load limiting seat belts.”

Progress on pedestrian safety has been slower but more recent results are encouraging.