/ Motoring

Are cars really getting safer and more reliable?

First-ever Euro NCAP crash safety test

Cars that can detect cyclists, a proposed longer gap before the first MOT; many would have us believe that car safety and reliability is better than ever. But what do you think?

Twenty years ago, the car safety test organisation, Euro NCAP, ran its first set of unsuspecting family cars into a crash barrier at 40mph. Then, it side-smashed a set of identical cars at 30mph.

The results weren’t pretty.

Once the twisted bits of metal and shattered glass had come to a rest, a few conclusions were made – namely the ‘best’ cars tested wouldn’t prevent potentially serious injuries, while the worst would likely see you driving on to that great big garage in the sky.

This was the first comparable and realistic set of car safety tests carried out and published by independent experts in Europe.

(Oh, and did I mention Which? was a founding member?).

Car safety in 2017

Fast-forward to today and cars now come with assurances and long lists of safety equipment.

Compared to 1997, driver and passenger airbags, side protection airbags, seat belt reminders and electronic stability control are all standard on all cars sold across Europe.

But then there’s the flashy, and largely optional, stuff.

Some cars will now warn you when someone is in your blind spot (blind spot assist), adaptive cruise control will automatically slow you down with traffic, and brake assist will apply the brakes harder and faster than you could manually.

Many new cars have a form of AEB (Autonomous Emergency Braking), which will detect if you’re a) about to crash into something and b) haven’t noticed it yet, so will hit the brakes for you in order to mitigate or prevent the crash from happening at all.

That last one is so good, it can lower your insurance. How much by depends on how sophisticated the system is.

Reliability on the rise?

It isn’t just safety either; reliability is seemingly on the rise, too.

In fact, it has been proposed that new cars could go four years without an MOT, rather than three years, as it is now.

Looking at the last Which? car reliability survey in 2016, we can see the most suffered faults with cars aged three years or less were issues with the sat-nav, entertainment system and lights.

All electrical problems and all annoying – but hardly anything that would see your car being in the garage for days on end.

Why aren’t we quoting the 2017 car survey? Because it’s still open!

If you haven’t done it yet, please do – it helps us identify the most and least reliable cars on the road, affects our test scores and you could win £2,500 just for taking part (T&Cs apply).

Do you feel safer in modern cars and are they more reliable? Or are all these safety features just turning us into lazy drivers? Are you happy with a bigger gap before the first MOT on new cars?


The conversation started with MOT’s.
Interesting to note the number of associated subjects that have been mentioned!

Contributors have added a range of skills and experience which today are redundant and not required to be allowed to take a ton of metal onto our roads!

I passed my tests a number of years ago and I am still allowed to take a truck weighing 44 tonnes onto the road. I can also drive a vehicle carrying 100 passengers and will not be assessed, because of my advancing years on my suitability to used the roads of Britain and Europe!
Because of progress, I welcome the latest electronic devices and systems installed in new vehicles that minimise the incidents (accidents!) which are the subject of many “reality” programmes! I will not fault this type of progress.

We are all recalling the glory years when it was good to get out and get under but don’t ask the new driver to follow our enthusiasm to get dirty in the name of impressing the girlfriend!
Today’s driver has to drive the latest model and have the loudest music system and be at the head of the queue at the traffic lights.
Have we had a contribution from any one from that group?

I urge all to continue safely on the roads, predict the other drivers actions and arrive safely but not necessarily first.

We have discussed the safety of cars, but perhaps we should look at the improving reliability of cars, the other point mentioned in Adrian’s introduction. Each car I have owned has been more reliable than the previous one and my present car has not needed anything more than routine servicing in the four and a half years I have owned it. The last time I had to call a breakdown recovery company was in 1989. I cover only about 8k miles a year.

My first car – a Vauxhall Viva HC – was forever needing repair. The engine failed rather spectacularly after less than 40k despite being serviced more frequently than recommended. I rebuilt it with help from my father and a neighbour after the block had been rebored and the crankshaft and camshaft had been reground. The front wings had rusted through after three years despite having been rustproofed shortly after purchase. (Back in the 70s, cars rusted so fast that it was common to have them rustproofed in the hope they would last longer.)

Although I am very happy with my more recent cars I am concerned that others have not been so lucky. In another Conversation we have discussed the problem of problems with warning lights that can lead to MOT failures. Problems can be difficult to diagnose and expensive to fix.

Mechanical wear and tear usually results in a breakdown, not an accident. Car safety and reliability has come on leaps and bounds in the last few decades, helped of course by more stringent testing and health and safety legislation.

I suspect that an analysis of insurance company and police accident reports would indicate driver fault or some other exceptional event as being the principal cause of accidents today, not mechanical breakdown.

In France a first MOT (Contrôle Technique) is due four years after first registration of a new car, then every two years thereafter. I cannot recall reading of any accident in the French press that was a result of a faulty vehicle that should not have been on the road, or of any demands to tighten up the level of testing – apart from exhaust pollution, which is also happening in the UK.

I believe the test should also reflect todays dangers rather than those of nearly forty years ago e.g. how about a compulsory driving test for those who still remember how to double clutch?

John says:
6 February 2017

As a low mileage driver, I think it should be considered making the MoT mileage dependent – for example “every 15,000 miles or 12 months, whichever occurs later”. Also, to avoid the “licence to print money” incentive, ALL MoT testing should be taken away from garages and should be done by independent organisation(s) (as is the case in New Zealand). There also needs to be a review of what is covered in the MoT e.g. failure of the SRS system should not be an automatic failure – as its name states, it is only a “supplemental restraint system” – it does not contribute to preventing an accident in the fist place – I had to scrap (environmentally bad) an otherwise perfectly good car just because the parts could not be found to replace an SRS module – bonkers. Cars are far too sophisticated these days and it is not right that a perfectly safe/sound car, mechanically speaking, should be scrapped because some electronic control module has failed, or a dashboard warning light has failed to illuminate – for example it shouldn’t matter that the ABS electronic module has failed/or failed to light up on the dashboard when the underlying mechanical brakes are still perfectly sound – these electronic modules are just “extras” to the underlying essential basics – the car is still mechanically safe. We need to get back to basics – presently I’m all for finding an old classic, devoid of all of this needlessly fault prone sophistication.

John says:
6 February 2017

Cars more reliable/safe -pah! The central locking system on my Landrover Freelander 2 is so unpredictable that I never know whether I am going to be able to actually get in and use it – so it’s pretty damn safe if I can’t use it. Landrover tried to justify it by telling me that it will lock me out at a random time to ensure that there is enough charge in the battery to turn over and start the engine once I get into it – excuse me, what’s the point of assurance of starting the engine if one cannot get into the car to start it? The “emergency ” access (mechanical) lock, instead of being on the door with the highest probability of success of affording access (driver’s door), is on the passenger door, access to which was blocked on two occasions, necessitating forced entry and damage to the driver’s door thereby – I have pursued a claim of “not of satisfactory quality on account of defective design”, but without success (on behalf of all sufferers of such balmy designs of keyless entry cars, as the responsible electronic module is probably supplied by the specialist manufacturer of it to many other brand/manufacturers (Fords will lock you out too, but they sensibly put the manual lock on the driver’s door)). Most recently, I could only get in via the pasenger door and then clambering over the gear lever – now I can only use the passenger door’s mechanical lock to gain access as both “remotes” are “dead”. I wonder how long it will be before being unable to get into one’s car, because of another electronic control module “failure” becomes a mandatory MoT failure – probably on the grounds that there is a risk that the door(s) might not be able to be opened after an accident? Another reqason for getting back to simple basics – simple mechanical levers – pull the handle, lever moves, door opens – simples!

I’m not too keen on the growing complexity of cars and was glad to be able to get one with simple mechanical handbrake. These are not always trouble-free but can at least be fixed easily and cheaply. My previous car developed an odd problem with the central locking. Press the close button once to lock the car, twice to deadlock it ….. and the third press would unlock the front passenger door. Fortunately it was still under guarantee when I discovered this.

I suggest that you have a look at Which? and other car reliability reports, John. I cannot remember LandRover coming out well and I have friends who moan about the cost of keeping their LRs running. The only one who is happy has a Series 1 model, which is devoid of gadgetry.

Central locking on tumble dryers might fall into the same problem over complexity wavechange…………………………..:-)

On the long-running subject of mobile phone use while driving, I reckon that the only way this will ever be properly addressed is if someone caught on their mobile while driving is made to watch their vehicle being crushed in front of their eyes. In addition, this eventuality should not be able to be covered by insurance.
As many of the culprits are ‘white van’ drivers, such a move would probably lose them their livelihood as well, so I suspect that even they would soon give up on using their mobile on the move.

Worse still would be watching their phone crushed with all its contents. More appropriate.

I took my VW Golf in for modification to correct the well known emissions problem and the main agent did a vehicle health check. This identified slight leakage of oil from both rear shock absorbers, which would have been an advisory point on an MOT. This was on a four and a half year car that had covered 35.5k miles and no problem was reported at the MOT last July. I will have the shock absorbers replaced because loss of significant oil could affect the handling.

When I got home I found an email from the dealer with a link to a video that clearly showed the problem and also that the car was otherwise in good condition.

Driver complacency is the most dangerous – Jeremy Clarkson once said that the most potentially effective contribution to road safety would be the addition of a large sharp spike to the centre of the steering wheel boss to spear the driver in the event of a collision! Also, many improvements to vehicle reliability are down to Materials Engineering – eg when did you last replace a radiator coolant hose or ‘fan belt’ [better synthetic rubbers], exhaust system [better steels and reduced sulphur in fuels reducing sulphuric acid in exhaust condensate] and tyres with improved performance in terms of rolling resistance [hence improved mpg] noise, wet/cold/ice performance at the same time as lasting longer due to tyre developments. Also, SatNavs do not need to be distracting – they talk to you!