We’ve all seen a new car put through the rigours of crash-safety testing.
The footage in slow motion, an array of strange attachments and symbols to the side of the car, and expressionless dummies offering little resistance to their impending fate.
But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes? What had to happen before that unfortunate car was deliberately hurled into a wall?
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) independently tests new cars for safety and awards them a rating from 1-Star to 5.
The organisation claims that someone is killed or seriously injured in Australia or New Zealand due to road trauma every 15 minutes; around 34,000 people per year at a cost of around AU$70million per day.
Four people on average die on Australian and New Zealand roads every day.
ANCAP is therefore committed to raising the bar on road safety in new cars, and crash testing forms a critical part of this plan.
BEFORE THE CRASH TEST
Firstly, the dummies are all thoroughly checked to make sure they are still able to offer the important data required.
Between crash tests, most of them are in pieces, having sensors in heads, chests, legs and torso tested using dedicated equipment.
They take a bit of a pounding and are too expensive to replace when they can be repaired instead.
The vehicle itself is checked, both by the engineers conducting the crash test and representatives of the carmaker. The fuel in the tank is replaced with an equal amount of water, to simulate the weight but remove the fire hazard.
Fire testing is done separately, for a very good reason. Most of the vital testing equipment is mounted in the boot; and it’s worth half a million dollars.
Two adult dummies occupy the front seats and two infant dummies are mounted in child restraints in the back seat; together they are worth another $500,000.
With so much valuable equipment on board, this is not the time to learn that a particular car becomes a fireball upon impact.
The engineers take their places in a tower, straddling the runway. All of the equipment must be checked to make sure that it is “talking” to the main computers.
Once everything is ready, the garage door is raised to reveal the test vehicle, ready to go. The bright lights above the impact zone are illuminated; and we’re off!
The cable attached to the front of the car brings it up to a 64km/h impact speed. It detaches just a few metres from the end, when the car slams into the pre-prepared 'honeycomb' aluminium surface - designed, in the test we witnessed, to replicate an off-set impact with another car.
After a quick check for obvious danger, the clean-up begins. Broken plastic is swept up, and the larger bumper and headlight pieces are put to one side.
Brake fluid, coolant and even the washer-bottle detergent are all dripping onto the floor.
The engineers then go over every sensor on their computer screens, while others inspect the physical damage. Both front airbags have deployed, and the windscreen has cracked on one side.
The dummies have remained secured by their seatbelts, and the interior light has illuminated.
Points are awarded depending on how the car performed in key impact areas. The frontal impact test that we have just witnessed is worth a maximum of 16 points, which will later combine with other test scores to determine the overall result.
Some of the less obvious damage includes the windscreen-wiper stalk, which has snapped off, and the interior sunglass-holder, which has fallen open.
The small plastic disc used to hide the threaded hole for the front towing hook is now deeply embedded in the honeycomb aluminium.
A second test vehicle must now face a 50km/h side-impact test – worth a further 16 points - which will be conducted separately.
In the meantime, the carmaker representatives seem satisfied that the vehicle performed according to expectations.
While safety ratings were merely something to read about in the past, a 5-Star rating is now viewed as crucial by carmakers as a marketing tool for their new models.
Yes, the safety bar has been raised over the years - but ANCAP is now planning to raise it a little further.
(ANCAP has also said that it will not be adding a 6- or 7-Star rating, or higher.)
With technology like emergency brake-assist and autonomous emergency braking becoming more common in mainstream cars, such features may soon be mandatory if a car is to score 5 stars.
The pros of such a scheme would be obvious, in that carmakers would hopefully fit such safety technology to even their cheapest models in order to maintain 5-Star safety ratings.
The cons could possibly see cars with higher price tags and a confused public, who don’t understand why the 5-star car they bought last year would be considered a 5-Star car under the latest standard.
In 2012, electronic stability control (ESC), three-point seatbelts in all front-facing seats and side airbags in the front were compulsory to achieve a 5-Star rating.
In 2014, roof-crush strength tests will be introduced along with higher standards for pedestrian safety.
By 2017, ANCAP plans to add seatbelt reminders, emergency brake assist, top-tether anchorages for child restraints and side airbags for rear seats to the compulsory list.
And depending on technical advancements between now and then, maybe even more…