Euro NCAP Testing

Car safety features explained

What safety features should you look for in your next car and how do they help protect you and your passengers? Here’s our guide to everything you need to know.

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By Cazoo editorial team

We all want our cars to be as safe as possible, and the latest cars are full of clever engineering and technology to protect you, your passengers and people nearby. Here, we explain your car’s safety features and how they work to keep everyone safe.

What makes a car safe?

The first line of defence in road safety is to drive with care and attention. But it’s good to know that car safety has improved a great deal over the past 20 years. Cars are built to be much stronger than before and to give those inside much better protection during a crash. They also have lots of electronic safety systems that can reduce the likelihood of an accident in the first place.

New types of metal and improved construction methods make a modern car’s structure better able to withstand an impact. Cars also have bigger ‘crumple zones’ or ‘crush structures’, which absorb much of the energy generated by a crash and channel it away from the passengers. 

Electronic or ‘active’ safety systems monitor road conditions and where your car is in relation to its surroundings. Some will warn you of a potential danger and some will even intervene on your behalf if necessary. Different cars have different features, though many are now required in new cars by law. (We’ll cover these in a bit more detail later.)

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What are seatbelts?

Seatbelts hold you in your seat in a crash. Without a belt, you could hit the dashboard, another passenger, or even be thrown out of the car, suffering serious injury. The belt is attached to the car’s body structure and is so strong that the whole car could be picked up with it. The latest cars also have other features that work with the belts, including pre-tensioners that pull them very tight if sensors detect an impending crash.

What are airbags?

Airbags prevent you from coming into contact with parts of a car’s interior that could cause injury. Most new cars have at least six airbags in the front and side of the car, to protect the occupants’ heads. Many cars also have airbags at body and knee level and some even have airbags in the seat belt to protect your chest, and between the front seats to stop occupants slamming into each other. Whether airbags go off depends on the severity of the impact (although in the US they go off above a set driving speed). Airbags only protect you fully if you’re wearing your seatbelt.

Airbags in a Mazda CX-30

What are anti-lock brakes?

The anti-lock braking system (ABS) prevents your car from skidding if you brake heavily. Sensors detect if a wheel is about to stop turning or ‘lock up’ and then the brake on that wheel is released and reapplied automatically to prevent a skid. You’ll know when ABS is activated because you’ll feel it kick back through the brake pedal with a shudder. By keeping the car’s wheels turning, ABS significantly shortens the distance it takes for the car to stop and makes it easier to turn while braking, helping you stay in control.

Brakes on a Nissan Juke R

What is electronic stability control?

Like ABS, electronic stability control (ESC), also known as an electronic stability programme (ESP), is another system that prevents a car skidding out of control. Where ABS prevents skidding while braking, ESC prevents skidding while cornering. If sensors detect a wheel is about to skid it’ll apply the brakes on that wheel and/or reduce the power, to keep the car on the straight and narrow.

Electronic stabilty control in action (picture: Bosch)

What is traction control?

Traction control stops a car’s wheels from losing their grip and spinning during acceleration, which could cause you to lose control. If sensors detect a wheel is about to start spinning, it reduces the power being sent to that wheel. It’s particularly helpful when the road is slick with rain, mud or ice, which could make the wheels lose grip much more easily.

BMW iX on snow

What is driver assistance?

Driver assistance is a catch-all term for safety systems that monitor a moving car’s surroundings and warn you if a potentially dangerous situation is developing. More advanced features can even take over control of the car if the driver fails to respond.

Many of these features are now required by law, but car manufacturers include others as standard or as extra-cost options on most models. Among the most common are automatic emergency braking, which can perform an emergency stop if the driver doesn’t react to an impending collision; lane-departure warning, which alerts you if your car is straying out of its lane; and blind-spot warning, which lets you know if there is another vehicle in your car’s blind spot.

What is a Euro NCAP safety rating?

When you’re looking for a new car, you may come across its Euro NCAP rating and wonder what it means. Euro NCAP is the European New Car Assessment Programme, set up to improve car safety.

Euro NCAP buys new cars anonymously and puts them through a series of assessments in controlled conditions. These include crash tests, which show how a car fares in typical types of collisions, as well as examinations of a car’s safety features and their effectiveness.

Its star rating system allows you to easily compare the safety of different cars: each is given a star rating, with five being the highest. Euro NCAP’s criteria have become tougher over the years, so a car given a five-star rating 10 years ago probably wouldn’t get the same today because it lacked the latest safety features.

Euro NCAP crash test of a Subaru Outback

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