The feather in Max's NCAP

Overseeing motor racing was only part of Mosley’s remit. Andrew Frankel discusses the major impact he had on improving road car safety standards

By his own estimation, Max Mosley’s most important achievement during his presidency of the FIA was to help instigate, implement and execute the EuroNCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) crash test procedures. Mosley was the chairman of EuroNCAP from 1996 until his resignation in 2004, during which time cars went from typically scoring two or three stars for occupant protection to the situation we enjoy today where anything less than the full five is at best a disappointment, at worst a considerable embarrassment.

At first the programme met with resistance from car manufacturers keen to point out that crash testing and meeting safety standards enshrined by law was already routine and mandatory. But EuroNCAP had the power to buy cars for testing with or without their blessing, so in reality manufacturers had little choice but to comply with NCAP’s tougher tests.

Mosley knew that the greatest weapon at his disposal was publicity, a fact he exploited ruthlessly, and soon a poor NCAP result became a greater deterrent to sales than poor fuel consumption or performance figures. When the 1999 Chrysler Voyager scored just two stars in its crash test, sales fell off a cliff. And there is no question that, as a direct result of the work done by EuroNCAP under Mosley’s stewardship, the crash performance of modern cars as measured by NCAP has, in the overwhelming number of cases, been transformed.

All good, then? Not necessarily. Almost from the moment cars began regularly receiving five stars it has been informally suggested that certain car companies, realising the undoubted marketing potential of a five-star rating, had started designing cars specifically to pass EuroNCAP tests. That is to say that instead of building cars that are safer in as wide a spectrum of crash scenarios as possible, they’d design in strength specifically to meet the known and quantified challenges of the EuroNCAP front offset, side impact and pole tests. Over the years NCAP has been aware of ‘one or two incidences of manufacturers trying funny things’ but insists these are the exceptions and that overall crash protection has improved massively as a result of its testing.

Perhaps less well known is that EuroNCAP does not apply star ratings in the same way across the board, so just because a small hatchback and a large saloon both have a five-star rating, that does not mean they are equally safe: it means only that five stars have been earned within a car’s specific class.

But the biggest flaw in EuroNCAP, and the one issue Mosley failed to address in his eight years as its chairman, is the absence of any measure of primary safety – a car’s ability not to have the accident in the first place. It’s an issue Mosley singled out in his resignation speech when he said, “The next big area of progress is the avoidance or mitigation of an accident before it happens. Getting this active safety right is a major challenge and will require more time from the chairman than I am now able to give.”

Perhaps he should have stayed, because whatever you think of Mosley, on his watch things got done. Five years after his NCAP departure there remains no sign of any test of primary safety – not even a simple braking efficiency assessment. If you think prevention is better than cure, EuroNCAP’s work remains less than half done.