/ 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 MOT is a safety check to ensure that unseen (or ignored) problems don’t lead to accidents. Three years seems about right given the mechanical wear and tear over that time. It would be interesting to see a breakdown (forgive the pun) of the number of MOT failures for cars taking their first tests and even more interesting, to add to this, the work done on cars before they have their first test, in order to gain a pass. This would give us some basis to make a judgement. Maybe this has been done and the result is an extension to four years as a result -who knows?
Having been driving for x number of years, some of which required double-de clutching to shift gears, I instinctively rebel at all these new, so called safety measures, air bags, seat belts and crumple zones excluded. Part of driving around is to be alert to the things that are happening in the vicinity. I don’t need a radar to tell me I’m too close to the car ahead; I don’t need flashing lights to remind me to look in the mirror -and the bit at the end – to check the road is clear to pull out; I’m not too drunk or comatose to keep in a straight line on the motorway and I don’t want a steering wheel with a mind of its own or a noisy, nosey dashboard that mimics Blackpool illuminations when it thinks I’ve sinned. More controversially I also like to know which gear I’m in because I’ve put it there in the first place and I know when it needs changing. When I become too decrepit to notice all these things I shall sell the car.

I couldn’t agree more with VynorHill. These days a lot of drivers are throwing common sense out of the window and drive without regard to what is going on around them. I fully support the new legislation about the use of Mobile Phones whilst driving and would support a stiff driving ban on anyone caught a second time.

Perhaps we should also have a compulsory driving test for those of an age that can remember double-de clutching!!

With regard to Hugh’s point, I think immediate confiscation of the mobile phone would be a powerful penalty. It could be returned once the enforcement process was completed and all fines paid and sanctions complied with. Of course, the culprit could soon obtain another mobile phone [at further expense] but it would be inconvenient to lose access to everything stored on the one they were caught with at the wheel.

Great comment, but I would like to see a mot time schedule similar to the servicing guidelines for your vehicle eg; 20 thousand miles or two years whichever comes first, after all some people will do in excess of 40 thousand miles in a year and others less than 10 thousand. Just a thought.

There would have to be a reliable way of informing the DVLA of the mileage record. At least with a periodic examination there can be no dispute as to when it is due. Your suggested two-year maximum interval would probably be satisfactory but owners would have to remember when the MOT becomes due if their mileage was lower than the threshold or make sure they have an MOT if they are eating up the miles more quickly. I could foresee a lot of arguments over what came first, the mileage or the time schedule. The periodic system has the benefit of certainty and is easily enforceable. I could also foresee the insurance industry getting the wind up if there was any looseness in the MOT schedule.

@johnward – Modern phones share information with other devices so that confiscation of a phone would not necessarily deny the owner access to the information on their phone. The information stored on my phone is also on the laptop and tablet without any effort on my part.

That is true. But not everyone shares their data across their devices – I for one don’t; I stay very compartmentalised. Relieving me of my phone would cause no inconvenience as there are very few numbers listed in the memory, although I must add that the only time I use it in the car is when I am in the passenger seat.

As a fellow starting-handle expert I can empathise with vynorhill, but…the big exception that comes to mind is the modern habit of sustained speed on motorways etc. irrespective of conditions.
Driving into bad visibilty on a motorway is terrifying – slowing down is like playing Russian Roulette, so perhaps radar may prevent these huge pile-ups that occur?

Regarding those who persist in using phones while driving:
All Traffic Police should immediately be issued with a MOBILE TELEPHONE MILL which would be used to reduce offenders phones into 4 millimetre GRANULES. The device would be manually operated via a large cranked handle and be similar to a kitchen mincer, only bigger. To facilitate it’s use at the roadside it would need to be firmly clamped to the roof of the offenders car through an open door using a powerful CAM and LEVER, the specially HOBBED FINISH of the HARDENED STEEL JAWS causing considerable damage to the roof lining inside and leaving a dent and damaged paint on the exterior. A DELIVERY CHUTE would direct the remains of the phone into the footwell of the car.
These relatively cheap devices would save a fortune in paperwork and the “badge of shame” they inflicted onto the vehicle would in time have more effect than paltry fines…

Do you have any figures for the number of MOT failures for cars tested for the first time, Adrian? I suspect that these would provide a good reason for maintaining the status quo but will keep an open mind for the time being.

I have little doubt that cars are safer these days but am concerned about the drivers. I regularly see drivers using mobiles.

The easier it is to drive a car with less concentration the more likely it is that people will find other things to occupy their hands and their minds.

Hopefully those who have suggested waiting until a vehicle is four years old have had sight of the MOT failure figures. A few years ago it was suggested that MOT tests should be every two years and I’m glad that this never happened.

One safety feature I would like to see is hands-free phones that can only be used when the vehicle is stationary. I have had to take prompt action too many times when drivers are in a world of their own, sometimes when negotiating roundabouts and road junctions. Not everyone will agree, of course.

There are plenty of cars under 3 years old on the road with non-working lights. There will be even more if they don’t need an MOT for 4 years.

I have often thought new cars should have a yearly safety check until they require an MOT. These things might get picked up at an annual service, but not everyone bothers with them (working vehicles come to mind here).

You might be right. The statistics for MOT failures makes depressing reading: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/482188/dvsa-mot-03-mot-class-3-and-4-vehicles-initial-failures-by-defect-category.csv/preview About 38% failure rate and about three faults per failure. Unfortunately, I cannot find data relating to the first MOT at three years old.

Wear and tear is a major contributor to car safety problems – suspension and steering joints, brakes, tyres, for example. I would suggest that the initial test is at either 3, or perhaps 4, years or at a defined mileage – say 30000 miles, whichever comes first.

I was (am) a driver a bit like Vynor. The challenge of changing gear correctly and controlling the car by skill, knowledge, to demonstrate my driving ability…………Except I suspect we are all good drivers – its the others. I cannot always detect a slippery road (I remember unexpectedly meeting a diesel spill) so anti-lock brakes are high in my estimation. I rarely feel traction control operating but one of my son’s, a careful driver, hit a kerb on another undetectable slippery road when his proved faulty. With cars so quiet these days I now regularly use the speed limiting control to ensure I don’t accidentally stray above speed limits.

I was persuaded to buy my new car as an automatic – J Bonnington Jagworth would turn in his grave. But how much easier is driving, particularly in traffic, when you can concentrate on what is going on around you on the road instead of continually changing gear.

I’m all for modern car technology. The big downside is when something you rely on goes wrong, and the cost of putting it right. My old manual 1994 Espace has its pleasures still, not least fairly simple remedies.

Wasn’t J. Bonnington Jagworth one of Peter Simple’s characters in The Daily Telegraph along with Herz van Rentl? In those days my alter ego was D. Reg Morgan with a reliable roadster, but fantasy never turned into reality.

He was. I remember when the DT was a real newspaper reading his amusing “motoring column”.

I went round the Morgan factory many years ago to see a handmade industry at work. Still much the same in principle. A pleasure to see craftsmen using traditional skills. And still producing cars at prices that are not out of this world. If I had the time I would love to own a simple car from yesteryear – 3 speed, 50 mph, narrow wheels, chassis, wooden floorboards, foot operated dipswitch. But only for fun. An acquaintance bought a Model T for £11000 and uses it locally most days.

A friend has let me drive his 1936 Morris 8 and it was an interesting driving experience, particularly when he invited my to do an ’emergency slow’ – as he described it. Three gears, trafficator indicators and a 6V electrical system.

That sound like fun, and not something that most of us will ever experience. In the days when we had snow in winter I occasionally had a play on a deserted snow-covered car park to regain confidence about being able to handle a skid in an emergency.

I started in my dad’s 1931 Austin 7- 3 speed crash gearbox, then progressed to his 1934 Austin7 with synchro on 3rd & top ( 4th) and passed my driving test in it in 1956 in Acton London., so I do know how to double declutch, and can still do so when the need arises! so I have grown up with the developments in car technology.
I now have a Peugeot 5008 Allure EGC with electronic gear change, stop start technology, and other bells & whistles, including a head-up display of speed ! It allows me to concentrate on the road ahead and my speed is in my eyeline ! which is one of the best parts of this car.
I still use a separate Satnav, much cheaper and easier to update than an installed one.
I also have the Which? recommended dashcam, which I hope I will never need in an emergency situation, but is there as my witness if needed.

Modern cars are the cause of terrible drivers they get themselves into trouble and then expect the car to do everything to get them out of if I learnt to drive when all most cars had to assist the driver was servo assited brakes How many drivers would now manage to drive cars without ABS ? Any driver can do himself what ABS now does for you Many other things now fitted I could manage to drive safely without Drivers NO !!! Vehicle Steelers and some cannot even manage to do that safely I admit some “improvements” can and are be useful but maybe not essental

I don’t think you could do effectively what ABS does, in fairness. None of these measures, I agree, are “essential”; I’d still be happy driving a Morris 8 or even a Model T Ford (I have an Autocar book that includes driving instructions for this odd vehicle). But in today’s traffic and speeds I think we are all much safer when some tasks are assisted by technology, leaving more of our attention focused on what is going on around us.

I disagree with malcolm r. Long before ABS was the norm I was able to use that technique. I had plenty of opportunity as it was the severe winter of 1962/3 (in my North Western home area) when we had three months of snow, and the River Mersey nearly froze over. I very rarely feel the ABS cutting in, except on say sandy/ gravelly surfaces at slow speed. But then I do not normally exceed the speed limits, and keep an eye out for potentially slippery surfaces. I live in North Wales where snow and ice are common, as it was in the Pennines where I once lived at the 1000 foot contour.

I now prefer auto boxes, particularly in traffic jams, but they have improved enormously since a ‘four on the floor’ manual was every young man’s desire. The Ford Consul etc of the day in auto form was two speed, which meant that driving a Zodiac up Buttertubs etc. meant that you had to be prepared to have a Morris Minor leave you for dead when going uphill (this in 1962 or 3).

So some changes for the better, others not. The rot proofing is however very much better these days, and that is a major blessing. These days a 10 year old car can still look very decent indeed.

I was very impressed with the ABS on my BMW R1150RT motorcycle. I’m sure if saved me from at least a couple of “get offs” down the years.

Although 20/20 hindsight tells me that a perfect rider would have avoided those problems by means of superior alert levels and skill, some of us do have to live, ride and drive in the real world. That includes recognising that we will sometimes make mistakes.

“My father told me that the only person I could ever rely on was myself and even that person may let me down.”

I’m not sure it’s modern cars per se that are the cause of terrible driving. I suspect it’s more because most people simply don’t bother to think about improving their skills once they’ve passed the (very basic) driving test. I took the IAM test and advanced IAM test within a year of passing the normal one, and was trained for both by a Police driving instructor. I can still remember the lessons: terrifying, invigorating and challenging, and that was before engaging gear. But the training held, and I’m aware of trying to be better every time I set out. Driving remains a constant test of skills and ability, and it’s also – interestingly – a social function, since many of the same qualities – thoughtfulness, courtesy, patience, consideration and honesty – are required.

I have no problem with technology in cars to help improve safety, but the complexity of operating some of the non-safety related items have a negative effect.
When I look at the heater controls on my car for instance, the positioning of it all and the amount of buttons is horrendous! Take your eyes off the road for too long to fiddle with all these things and you’ll come a cropper one day!

That’s probably why, of all the hire cars I’ve driven, I liked the Skoda Octavia the best 🙂

When I bought my present car – or motorised computer might be more accurate – I was sat with the knowledgeable salesman on delivery for an hour while he explained the controls and set up different systems – Bluetooth phones, satnav, DAB / FM radio, climate controls, …………I keep browsing through the handbook to pass an idle hour and find options I didn’t know existed. However, once set up it is simple. Demisting – press one button. Heating – turn a knob if you want a different temperature, but what’s wrong with 21? Change the radio channel – press and rotate a button, or press the voice control and ask for Classic FM…… the SatNav is in the centre, not distracting because you listen to the voice commands. And head-up display means you don’t need to look down at dials or screen. What’s not to like? But lots to go wrong that I didn’t have on my Ford 8.

When I took delivery of a new car four or five years ago the salesman informed me that I would need to depress the clutch to start the engine. My father taught me to do this when I was 17 and asked me to put my foot on the clutch before starting, which would reduce the load on the starter and make sure that the car would not roll forward if accidentally left in gear. He also warned me that I would have to ensure that the car was in neutral with the handbrake applied when I took the driving test – which is about the only time I have started a car without the clutch depressed. I’m glad that the motor industry has worked out that it’s safer to start a car with the clutch depressed. I believe it’s been a requirement in the US and Canada for many years.

” I’m glad that the motor industry has worked out that it’s safer to start a car with the clutch depressed.” This sounds a bit disparaging of an industry that has worked consistently to improve cars and their safety. I was always taught to make sure the gear lever was in neutral before starting my car, and I’ve never had a problem. If you simply depress the clutch without checking your gears and your wet shoe slips off the clutch, you’re in problems.

I had a problem once with my Espace. I had started it from new simply in neutral. My local mechanic came to look at why it wouldn’t start, found no obvious problem, healthy battery and connections, so rang the local Renault specialist we both use. They suggested depressing the clutch. Immediately it sprang into life. But it has never needed that treatment since. “My” mechanic was Renault-trained and had not come across the problem in his many years working on Espaces. Any one had that same problem?

Malcolm – I always do make sure that neutral is selected before starting the engine. My father taught me to leave the car in gear when parking on a slope and to select neutral before starting. I still do these things. The first automatic car I drove had to be in neutral or park to start the engine, and that was many years ago.

I’ve a baseball cap in the manual Espace that I put on the gear lever if I park in gear on a hill. Just in case I forget…….

I wasn’t taught to depress the clutch when starting a car, but carried the habit over from when I learned to ride a motorbike. The motorbike I had was kick-start and the reason for pulling in the clutch was because on the motorbike gearbox you could get ‘false-neutrals’ which could lead to the kick-starter being forced back on you and on a large bike this could break your leg. So to me it made sense to do the same in a car as it guaranteed you were in neutral and reduced the risk of jumping forward when you turned your engine over.

The only good reason for declutching on start up is that the gearbox is then isolated from the engine and the starter does not have to rotate it. When the car is hot it hardly matters, but on a cold winter morning it takes some effort to rotate all those gears and bearings, immersed in cold oil which in older cars was typically SAE 80 or 90, with the consistency of porridge when really cold.
In winter conditions even good batteries are not at their best when cold so it definitely helps to declutch at early morning starts – the difference in cranking speed is noticeable.

One of the problems with using MoT data is that many failures are for what I think of as social concerns rather than safety concerns. I suppose it may be possible to segregate the grounds for failure into real safety issues and other matters, but doubt that it will be inexpensive to do so.

Could you tell us which MOT failures you think of as “social concerns”?

One of my pet hates on modern cars is the dash board illumination, which all too often is LED’s or similar. I feel that sat navs are too distracting to use safely. I have the use of a stick on (Tom Tom) that sits in front of my wife, or of myself if she is driving. The built in ones would be a negative for me if buying. And I fully agree about the modern heater / air con controls as expressed by rich835 above.

On the other hand I find that some cruise controls (like those on the Discovery) save my left leg a fair bit of exercise. Those on the 1998 E Class were good too, as are those on the SLK and X type Jaguar. A pity that they don’t cut in until about 25 mph though, as in safari parks in SA my right leg can get tired!

Tim Snelgar says:
3 February 2017

Are cars really getting safer and more reliable?
Modern cars are generally more safe and more reliable. If one goes wrong, however, it tends to go wrong in a big, expensive way rather than the continuous dribble of cheap repairs needed by cars of, say, the nineties. My wife’s last car, a Skoda Superb, 8 years and 125,000 miles, never replaced a single piece of exhaust. We only ever put on wear and tear parts. Until the vents leaked and the floor pan flodded and sure enough, there is an ECU full of water. Life gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

My “new” Espace is 13 years old and still on the original exhaust. Mind you, more important and expensive bits have failed in that time that shouldn’t have. 🙁

Today’s biggest issue affecting vehicle safety is actually down to the state of our roads. It is not always possible to avoid the ever-increasing number of potholes without crossing the centre of the road. I have just paid for two new front coil springs (one broke, the other as a precaution) and one new drop link – all broken due to the bad maintenance of our roads. I have seen alloy wheels broken, steel wheels bent, tyres split and all because the various authorities responsible for road maintenance simply do not do their jobs – from the Highways Agency responsible for Motorways and Trunk Roads to the county councils’ highways departments. Locally, my council sends out a team to patch potholes but they do not seal the edges of the holes and certainly don’t tamp down the filling properly so, with a few months, the same pothole reappears. This is an issue of maladministration and misuse of public funds – due in part to the privatisation of services by councils.

Mike says:
4 February 2017

Yes, cars are getting better but sadly drivers are getting worse.

P Newbery says:
4 February 2017

I agree with Malcolm r 1st comment that mileage done should be a consideration. I was a mechanic for 40 years and the repair work we had to carry out on especially company cars with high mileage was considerable. This is a factor that would be impossible to get figures for. A lot of these cars would have done in excess of 90000 miles in three years which would probably mean another 30000 miles if extended to 4 years. I cannot see this being safe if owners decide not to have it serviced regularly or even only have this carried out once a year to save on company costs. I don’t know if it would be possible to see failure rates for cars with mileage in excess of say 40000 miles. The problem is though how do you police a mileage restriction as the only time it is legally taken is on its first MOT and the circle starts again.

What extending the period before a first MoT fails to take into consideration is the difference in mileage some cars will do over the first three years of their life. Some will be on Motorways doing 20,000+ miles per year as Rep Mobiles while others will be lucky to do over 40 mph in town as they never go further than the school run or the nearest shopping centre.

It also doesn’t take into consideration that not everyone keeps their vehicle serviced to the Manufacturer’s specs, you only need to drive a short distance to see cars with faulty lights and I’ll guarantee the drivers are blissfully unaware of the problem.

One of the biggest problems we now have on our roads is caused by Day Running Lights, vehicle all lit up to the front, dashboard lights on, but no rear lights as the driver is either unaware or hasn’t been informed that the vehicles rear lights don’t come on with the DRLs. I got caught out by this a couple of years ago while driving a Hire car, it was only another motorist frantically flashing their lights at me that alerted me to the situation. I haven’t been caught out since.

I’ve been driving for over fifty years.

Cars are infinitely safer. They are also much faster, and tyre noise exempted, quieter.

But there are many more cars vying for available space, and using the increase in available power to nip aggresively into it. Drivers are less patient, accelerate faster and drive faster. Because we are so insulated from reality in this ‘Top Gear’ illusory, macho world, drivers are worse. We confront with our cars, and with our driving, as stress and tension cannot be expiated so conveniently at home, or against the boss (we might get sacked). Driving aggressively seems cheaper than talking face-to-face.

Alcohol still plays a terrible part – which was worse in my youth (hangs head) – but we now have illegal drugs too.

Cars better, drivers worse.

car design has assisted in reducing bad and fatal accidents caused by reckless drivers AT THE EXPENSE OF safer drivers. One example is that the safety pillars of cars which help protect the occupants reduce the visibility of those careful drivers who were always able to check 360 degree visibility. And if the new models of even smaller cars get any more “tank like” none of us will be able to put our cars in our garages.

As said, drivers are the main problem.
I claim to be a unique driver ; which is some claim needing backing:

All drivers claim ‘to be above average in driving ability’.
I acknowledge – and have done for a very long time – that I am below average.
Mathematically and statistically only one of the above ‘group’ can be telling the truth.

I have been driving ‘only’ since .. 1960, thankfully major accident free – so far.
One may wonder how.

Now into my 70s I am – and make myself be – more aware of my ‘below average’ ability, now at risk with age related draws-back.

The age-old motoring adage ‘Look in the mirror’ has a deeper meaning than the obvious and is relevant for ever.

It might have more impact if all rear-view car mirrors had an engraved message with the same salutary reminder:
YOUR driving ability is below average : FIX IT NOW

The other day, while walking, I stopped beside a parked police car containing 2 PCs and pointed out that they were committing an offence by parking with headlights on. The driver said he hadn’t realised his headlights were on. Should I dispair?

I hope not – you may have just met an honest cop.