Crash tests: what they mean to you as a consumer

One of the best ways to cut on-road risk – especially if you’re not speeding, drunk or dog-tired, and you are wearing a seatbelt – is to choose a car with excellent protective performance in a crash. Here’s how.


ANCAP – the Australiasian New Car Assessment Program – crash tests cars and publicises (often to the chagrin of car makers) the ability of each to protect you when it all goes horribly wrong. More than 200 of these stretching back 15 years are online at

ANCAP Chairman Lachlan McIntosh says the relative safety of vehicles is important. “Too many people die and are unnecessarily injured on the road,” he says. “We put our faith in governments and manufacturers to protect us. We just expect this will happen. Unfortunately, regulations on this are a bit slow.”

ANCAP reduces the complexities of crash testing to a simple star-rating system. Five-stars is the best, down to one.

McIntosh says there’s a gulf between compliance and excellence in crash performance. “There are significant differences in safety between a basic vehicle that just meets the [safety] regulations and a four- or five-star car.”


Michael Paine is ANCAP’s technical Manager, a veteran of some 250 crash tests. He says while we haven’t yet evolved to endure crashing, we have compensated via engineering. “Humans are not designed to survive high-speed impacts,” he says. “But for every 10 people killed in a two-star vehicle, we could expect five to survive if they’d been protected by five stars. It’s that drastic.”


ANCAP conducts up to three internationally recognized crash tests to determine a vehicle’s star rating. These simulate what in the real world would be head-on collisions, side (T-bone) crashes at intersections and side-on impacts into poles. The doomed vehicles, which have their resale values reduced to zip in about four-hundredths of a second, are bought off the showroom floor, anonymously.


Every vehicle tested goes head-to-head at precisely 64km/h with a massive concrete block. They’re pulled into the block by a computer-controlled cable that detaches automatically just before impact. The block is fitted with a crushable aluminium face to simulate the front of a car, and 40 per cent of the front of the car (on the driver’s side) hits the block. Hence the name ‘offset front’, by which the test is often referred. Four crash-test dummies – generally each worth more than the car being destroyed – participate in the crash, two adults in the front and an 18-month-old and three-year-old in the rear, both in child restraints. Complex measurements taken off the dummies, plus high-speed video from many different angles are used to determine how well the car’s underlying structure and clever tech (like airbags and load-limiting seatbelt pre-tensioners) have protected the fragile cargo inside.


Most cars do a side-impact test as well, where a special 950kg sled (think: like a Toyota Yaris) shunts the side of the condemned vehicle at 50km/h. Like in the offset front test the sled wears a crushable aluminium face, and the soon-to-be-scrapped car carries the full complement of four dummies, albeit special side-impact ones called ‘EuroSID’. Higher vehicles (think: 4WDs) get a free pass from this test because experience has shown their occupants are likely to get the full points for protection thanks to their increased elevation holding them above harm’s way.


Only vehicles with five-star aspirations sit for the ‘pole’ test, in which the vehicle is thrown – literally – at a solid steel pole in line with the driver’s head. Speed is ‘just’ 29km/h but, according to Michael Paine, the impact is severe. “If your head isn’t protected by a side airbag, 29km/h is almost certainly fatal here,” he says. “I saw my first pole test in Japan in 2002. I came back insisting everyone I knew buy a car with that head protection. It makes such a drastic difference to survival.”


Most cars on sale in Australia offer four- or five-star protection, though there are still some offering just three stars. But there are plenty of one- and two-star utes and vans on sale, despite the availability of four- and five-star competitors. Michael Case, ANCAP’s technical manager, says working-class Australians are often unwittingly second-class citizens on safety. “Commercial vehicles as a group haven’t improved at anything like the rate of passenger cars,” he says. “Their safety standards still aren’t as high as for passenger cars, and yet these vehicles carry passengers and they’re on the road a lot.”


ANCAP’s official communications advise: “Beware of cars with less than four stars,” which is pretty unequivocal advice next time you’re in a car dealership. To achieve five stars, vehicles must perform well in all three crash tests, achieving minimum scores in each. Five stars isn’t awarded to vehicles without Electronic Stability Control, a hi-tech skid-protection system that doesn’t assist a vehicle’s structural performance in a crash, but which goes a long way to help you avoid shunting something as a result of losing control.