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Horsepowers, shiny alloys and the badge on the front of the car are all good and well, but it is of no use if you do not arrive at your destination in one piece. Vehicle safety is very much in the public consciousness - and so it should be: After all, nobody has time to spend time in hospital, or worse.

In the automotive world, the NCAP crash test - NCAP stands for New Car Assessment Program - is the main player. For us in the UK, the Euro NCAP is the most important influence: it tests most of the new car models by subjecting it to the infamous NCAP crash test, in which crash test dummies are placed inside the car, and the vehicle is subjected to various crash tests.

A few times a year, the NCAP world publishes car safety ratings in a report. The ratings are based on a number of stars, where five stars is the best, and one star is rubbish. On their website (see the link at the bottom of this article), the result of each individual car safety test is published.

Where does the car safety rating come from?

The star ratings are based on a series of different tests. The first test is a front impact test, where a car tied to a cable is dragged into a heavy barrier at 40 mph. Via the crash dummies, the impact is analysed, and finds how much damage the crash causes. Or rather: How well the car protects you from damage.

The second test is a side impact test where a heavy trolly is towed into the driver's side of a vehicle at 30 mph. The test is designed to simulate a side-on crash.

The third test is a pole test - it checks how well a car deals with a rigid pole hitting the driver-side. This test simulates what happens when a car starts spinning and slides into the corner of a building, a telegraph pole, or if a car gets "Y-boned" diagonally into the side by another car.

The final test is a pedestrian impact test. This sounds rather morbid, and it certainly is - but it is an important test: it shows how much damage a vehicle would cause, should it run into an adult or child. The idea is that including this into the ratings would cause car manufacturers to focus not only on protecting the people inside the car, but also on the people outside.

Choosing a safe car

People have all sorts of different reasons to buy cars, but most of us can agree that surviving the increasingly dangerous car-jungle out there is one of the most important concerns. Adopting a new driving style may be the most effective way, but the road is only as safe as its most dangerous drivers. And, sadly, there are many loons on the roads.

When choosing a new car, then, it may be worth looking at the features included with the car. Airbags are pretty much standard on all new cars nowadays. Driver and passenger-side frontal airbags should be a minimum, but many cars also offer curtain-airbags (that drop down in front of the side window) and other side-airbags to protect in case of an impact. As a general rule, the more airbags, the safer.

ABS (anti-locking brake system) brakes should be a minimum, but the NCAP recently officially recommended also having a stability control system fitted to vehicles. Stability Control evolved from other technologies such as traction control and anti-lock brakes, but adds more sensors and a computerized control unit. The signals are continuously monitored to determine whether or not the vehicle is losing control. If a deviation from the intended course is detected, the control unit applies a small amount of braking to whichever wheel is needed to help stabilize the course of the vehicle. Some systems also adjust the power output of the engine to help further. This is all done by the control unit which reacts faster than even the best driver could manage. The driver may not know that the system has intervened.

As a general rule, larger cars are safer than smaller cars, but obviously, you would trade off safety against higher running cost (in the form of lower fuel economy) and higher purchase cost. Having said that, if you do a lot of miles on the motorway, a larger, more comfortable car may actually be a safety benefit as well, as it allows for more relaxed driving.

The levels of driving skills

There are three levels of driving skills: On the bottom tier, a driver relies on other drivers to save them from having accidents. Many new drivers, sadly, fall in this category, because they are nervous in traffic, because they don't have the experience, or because they over-estimate their own skills.

The second level of driving is being able to keep yourself out of trouble by anticipating traffic, seeing how other drivers react, and generally being a safe driver.

The most advanced level of driving - something we should all strive for - is to have archived such a level of traffic insight, that you can "read" the traffic ahead. This means that you realise dangerous traffic situations may arise, and that you adapt your driving accordingly. When driving like this, your behaviour will have an effect on the rest of the traffic around you, and by your presence, the road is a safer place.

Ultimately, becoming a more actively safe driver, keeping your attention on the road, and driving a safe car are all you can do.

... And if you are about to buy a new car, why not have a look at the NCAP ratings on www.euroncap.com before you make your final decision? You never know, in the long run, it may just save your life.

Originally written for www.askaprice.com

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