Purpose of this Fact Sheet

Vehicle safety is commonly assessed from two perspectives:

  • crashworthiness (passive safety) – the protection provided to vehicle occupants in the event of a crash; and
  • crash avoidance (active safety) – a vehicle’s capacity to prevent a crash from occurring.

Are modern vehicles more crashworthy than older vehicles?

As a rule of thumb, the more modern a vehicle, the greater the level of occupant protection.

Much of this improvement can be attributed to a series of Australian Design Rules (ADRs) ensuring that new vehicles manufactured in or imported into Australia meet specified occupant protection standards. Crashworthiness features covered by the Standards include: seat belts fitted to front seats, ‘anti-burst’ door latches and hinges, energy-absorbing steering columns, head restraints, improved location of seat anchorages, improved side door strength and major design improvements to protect against frontal and side impact crashes1.

The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has also contributed to improved vehicle crashworthiness. A primary purpose of ANCAP is to promote the purchase of new vehicles which provide maximum front-seat occupant protection, by producing consumer information in the form of a star rating system. Ratings are based predominantly on crashworthiness performance in several crash tests, whereby the greater the number of stars (up to five), the higher the safety rating. A full description of the ANCAP test protocols and scoring procedures used for most new vehicle models can be found at: http://www.ancap.com.au.

Since 1992, the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) has produced vehicle crashworthiness ratings, in this instance for cars already being driven on the road2. MUARC’s Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSRs) are an estimate of a driver’s risk of being killed or admitted to hospital, once involved in an on-road crash where at least one person was injured or at least one vehicle was towed away. Ratings have now been collected for 427 individual vehicle models manufactured since 1982, although older models have been progressively dropped from the brochures also to promote the purchase of safer vehicles: the 2009 brochure for example, presents ratings only for vehicles manufactured from 1992 onwards. (For more details, see http://www.monash.edu.au/muarc/projects/crashworthiness.html.)

(Most recently, a new method of presenting the ratings for consumer information has been introduced. Vehicles are now given a total secondary safety rating, a combination of crashworthiness and aggressivity ratings – with the latter being a measure of the injury risk the rated vehicles poses to drivers of other vehicles and unprotected road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclist.)

Figure 1 shows the relationship between crashworthiness measures (also showing 95% confidence limits) and year of vehicle manufacture, based on MUARC’s UCSRs. It also shows the dates of the major ADRs for passenger vehicles and the years when the ANCAP and MUARC crashworthiness ratings commenced – the most recent example shown being ADR 69, which has had an impact on both airbags and seat belt reminder systems.

Vehicles manufactured between 1964 and 1973 had an average crashworthiness rating of 6.0 percent, meaning that there were six drivers killed or admitted to hospital per 100 crash involvements. For vehicles manufactured between 2003 and 2007, the crashworthiness rating had fallen to 2.2 percent: put another way, current vehicles as a group are almost three times safer than vehicles manufactured thirty or more years earlier.

However this strong trend in improved occupant protection is not shared by all vehicle models. For example, the least safe model has almost three times the risk of death or serious injury in a towaway crash, compared to vehicles with average crashworthiness – and around 10 times the risk, compared to the safest model. These differences in crashworthiness makes it important that vehicle purchasers be fully aware of the different safety levels.

Both ANCAP ratings and UCSRs are based on the overall capacity of vehicles to protect occupants in the event of a crash (specific crash types for ANCAP and all crash types for the UCSRs). The ratings do not indicate the presence of individual safety features in the vehicles being assessed, although the more features present, the more likely the vehicle is to receive high safety ratings. (In the case of ANCAP, bonus points for some specific safety features such as seat belt reminders may make a modest contribution to the overall rating.) Table 1 provides a list of leading individual crashworthiness features and their availability3.