The crushing truth

With the number of road fatalities on UAE roads an alarming figure, vehicle safety and its results in a crash test are a key concern.

When a Toyota Camry and a Yaris were involved in a 40mph collision , the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found 'a lot of intrusion into the smaller car' and rated the Yaris' performance in this test as 'poor'. The Yaris fared better in a crash at a similar speed into a deformable barrier, when the driver's space was well-protected.
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While there are many plus points to life in the UAE, few would say the standard of driving is one of them. With speeding relatively routine and lane discipline often poor, it is perhaps no surprise that as many as 1,056 people were killed on the country's roads in 2007. Looked at on its own, this statistic is bad enough, but when compared to the figures for some other countries, it becomes decidedly alarming.

In the United Kingdom, for example, there are more than ten times as many people as there are in the UAE, yet in 2007 there were 2,943 road fatalities, which is only 2.8 times as many. This means that for motorists in the Emirates, vehicle safety should be a key concern. Crash test results are an obvious place to start, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a US organisation funded by vehicle insurers, and the European New Car Assessment Programme both publish results online.

Crash tests usually look at the effect of frontal and side impacts, assessing the strains put on the various body parts of crash test dummies. Engineers look at the degree of intrusion into the passenger compartment and determine the likelihood of injuries. The complicating factor is that most frontal impact tests involve a vehicle hitting a deformable barrier, which replicates the effect of an impact with a similarly sized vehicle.

While this gives useful information, it is by no means the whole picture - the way a car stands up depends on the characteristics of the vehicle or other structure it collides with. "Crash test results only generally tell you how the vehicle would do in a crash with a similar vehicle of the same weight," says Russ Rader, a IIHS spokesman. "Usually they don't tell you how that vehicle would perform if it crashes into something bigger and heavier. The laws of physics always apply. The laws hold that people in smaller, lighter vehicles are always at a disadvantage in crashes."

Larger vehicles, as well as tending to be heavier, also have more "crush space" than smaller cars. This crush space tends to dissipate the crash energy and keep it away from the occupants of the vehicle. The effect of size and weight is seen in stark terms in the IIHS's car-to-car tests. One of those done recently was of two cars popular in the UAE, the Toyota Yaris, a small car, and a Toyota Camry, a medium-sized saloon.

In a 40mph crash test with a deformable barrier, the driver's space in the Yaris was well protected and the car earned a "good" rating, the best of the IIHS's four categories, ahead of acceptable, marginal and poor. However, when a 2009 Yaris was in a 40mph collision with a 2009 Camry, the IIHS found there was "a lot of intrusion into the occupant compartment" of the smaller car. The car was given a poor rating, while the larger Camry was judged to be acceptable.

A similar pattern was seen when the IIHS looked at the 2009 Honda Fit, which is sold here as the Honda Jazz, and the 2009 Honda Accord. While the Fit earned a good rating in the 40mph crash test against the barrier, when it was tested against the Accord it got a poor rating, while the Accord was judged to be good. As a result of this pattern, the Euro NCAP, which rates vehicles on a five-star scale, says vehicles should be within about 150kg for comparisons to be made.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles are popular in the UAE, with many people believing they are safer than saloon cars. As well as having a size and weight advantage, SUVs have the benefit of what Mr Rader describes as the "compatibility factor", which means their crash-absorbing structures tend to be higher. "The automakers are working on this problem," says Mr Rader. The benefits of SUVs in crashes are such that the IIHS does not usually conduct tests on them, saying: "They start with a higher level of protection for occupants in the most common kinds of front, size and rear impact crashes."

However, the higher centre of gravity of four-wheel-drives is a downside. "The benefits they provide in crashes with other vehicles can be offset by the higher likelihood of being involved in a rollover crash," says Mr Rader. This is significant because, in a 2008 interview with The National, Dr Adnan Abbas, director of the fatalities section at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi said that "it's mostly rollovers" that cause deaths in the UAE.

Some SUVs, as well as many saloons, have electronic stability control to reduce the chance of rollover, and the IIHS and Euro NCAP recommend people to select such vehicles. However, these systems don't have an effect in the event of a collision, as the laws of physics supersede even the electronic programmes' capabilities. Given that one vehicle type wmight be safer in one sort of crash, but riskier in another, it can be difficult for car buyers to decide what to choose. But one thing Mr Rader is clear on that bigger tends to means safer.

"People have all kinds of criteria for selecting vehicles, but if safety is your top priority, you should stay out of the smallest vehicles," Mr Rader said. "It should be a vehicle that has a good crash-test rating and is at least as heavy as a typical midsized sedan," he said. Such Camry, Accord or Mitsubishi Galant-sized vehicles, if they have a good crash-test rating, provide the benefits of crash worthiness with enough weight, while not being as thirsty as some SUVs, Mr Rader says. A reasonable weight to aim for, he believes, is about 3,200 lbs, or 1,451 kg.

"The benefits of size and weight start to even out and diminish as you get up into the biggest vehicles," he says. But drivers should not automatically equate weight with safety, says Cordelia Wilson from Euro NCAP. This was graphically demonstrated by the British television programme Fifth Gear, which carried out an offset head-on impact test between a Volvo 940 estate, which was discontinued in 1998, and the Renault Modus, which was launched in 2004.

The Modus, which is not common on UAE roads, is slightly shorter and taller than a Nissan Tiida and received the full five stars for adult occupant protection from Euro NCAP. The Renault came off much better than the older but much larger Volvo, with the steering wheel and footwell in the latter having moved back significantly. "A lot of old cars haven't had the same safety developments put into them," Ms Wilson says.

"They won't be as safe as a small car that's been built with safety in mind," she says. Also, commercial vehicles are sometimes not built with the same safety features as saloon cars, so even if they are larger, they may not be safer. "These vehicles are subject to lower safety regulations in Europe," Ms Wilson says. "There has been a focus [in legislation] on consumer and passenger vehicles." In particular, Ms Wilson says some pickup vehicles of the kind popular in the UAE have done worse in crash tests than cars the same size or even smaller. For example, the 2008 Nissan Navara pickup was given three stars for adult occupant protection, while the 2006 Nissan Pathfinder, its passenger-carrying cousin, earned four stars.

Given the choice, Ms Wilson says she would prefer to be in a smaller supermini with a good crash-test result than in some larger commercial vehicles with disappointing test results. "We've tested some superminis that have very, very good whiplash test results," she said.