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The AA was a founder member of Euro NCAP which was launched in February 1997

The AA was a founder member of Euro NCAP which was launched in February 1997 with the results of a UK Department for Transport pilot study involving crash tests of six 'superminis'.

The Department for Transport study and the subsequent formation of Euro NCAP were a response to the high rate of fatal and serious injury crashes at the time. Seatbelt wearing laws had been introduced in the UK relatively recently - front seats from 1983 and rear from 1989 for children and 1991 for adults - and airbags had started to appear in family cars from the early 1990s, but restrained drivers and passengers were still suffering serious or fatal injuries. Car structures were deforming in crashes, unable to withstand the energy of the impact.

Seatbelts (primary restraints) and airbags (secondary restraints) both need space around the occupant to work effectively. If the passenger compartment collapses, the steering column moves back towards the driver or the footwell is crushed then severe injury will still result.

Initially Euro NCAP applied two full-scale crash tests. designed to represent the most common crashes, together with a series of component tests to assess how hazardous the vehicle's frontal structure would be to pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.

The full scale tests involved an offset test with 40% overlap against a deformable barrier at 40mph (5 mph slower than the equivalent legislative test introduced in 1996) and a side impact test in which a stationary car is struck in the drivers door at 30mph by a deformable barrier mounted on a trolly. Deformable barriers made of aluminium honeycombe are designed to represent the structural behaviour of another vehicle.

Two ratings were published: A star rating (out of four) for occupant protection based on the results of the front and side impact tests, and a pedestrian protection rating also out of a maximum of four stars.

The best result in the first group of six superminis was a 3-star occupant protection rating for the Ford Fiesta. In contrast, the Rover 100 scored no stars at all and was withdrawn from sale only a few months later.

The response from car manufacturers was to criticise both the tests and the rating system used to calculate the star ratings. They even went so far as to claim that Euro NCAP's tests were so severe that no car could ever achieve a 4-star rating. Only five months later the Volvo S40 became the first 4-star car.

The tests remained the same for several years with more and more new car models achieving a 4-star rating as manufacturers rose to the challenge.

Euro NCAP subsequently revised their rating system to create the possibility of a 5-star car, and in June 2001 the Renault Laguna became the first 5-star car.

Concerned that manufacturers were only focussing on adult occupant protection, Euro NCAP launched a new rating scheme in January 2009 with a revised overall rating that reflects protection offered to adult and child occupants as well as to pedestrians. The maximum rating of 5 stars remains but became more difficult to achieve.

Following a pilot programme in 2008, a new rear impact 'whiplash test' was added together with a 'safety assist' rating to take account of the availability of advanced driver assistance systems including Electronic Stability Control .

Euro NCAP has tested more than 500 new car models over almost 20 years, but the tests and rating system have evolved over the same period. This has significantly altered the meaning of the overall star rating so, as a general rule, you cannot directly compare ratings for models tested in different years.

In 2011 Euro NCAP started testing the performance of Electronic Stability Control rather than simply awarding points for its fitment. The test involves a 'robot driver' performing a rapid swerve manoeuvre, known as 'sine with dwell', at 50 mph.

ESC has been required as standard on all new cars since 2012.

Using radar and camera sensors an Autonomous Emergency Braking system (AEB) can work out if you're about to have a crash and apply the brakes automatically to prevent the crash, at lower speeds or reduce its severity at higher speeds.

Euro NCAP started testing and rewarding AEB systems from 2014 to try to encourage more widespread fitment.

Car structures have become stiffer making passenger compartments less likely to collapse and helping to reduce lower leg and head injuries but this means higher deceleration forces and much greater demands on restraint systems.

From 2015 Euro NCAP's tests include an additional whole vehicle crash test; a full frontal impact against a rigid barrier at just over 30mph (50kph) with small female crash test dummies in the driver's seat and rear passenger seat.