The possibility of an accident may be the farthest thing from your mind when you're out shopping for a new set of wheels, but the crash-worthiness of your vehicle should be more than an afterthought, as anyone who's been in a car accident will tell you.

Fortunately, there's a way to find out whether the car manufacturer has thought about your safety, or just focused on design and performance. Since 1993, the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) – a publicly and privately funded not-for-profit organisation – has been providing information about the safety features of new cars provide to protect you in the event of a crash.

What ANCAP does

ANCAP is a not-for-profit organisation that raises funds from its members for testing. It is supported by the Australian and New Zealand automobile clubs, Australian Federal, State and Territory governments, the New Zealand Government, the Victorian Transport Accident Commission, NRMA Insurance, and the FIA Foundation (UK).

ANCAP provides safety ratings for popular vehicle makes and models so you can make informed decisions. The ratings are at the forefront of many consumers' minds (along with price) when they consider buying a new car. The organisation's growing influence has forced manufacturers to respond by creating safer vehicles that aim for the top 5-star rating.

But the support only goes so far. The safety testing process is expensive, which prevents ANCAP from testing all cars. But it aims to cover the most popular vehicles in each segment of the market.

You might find ANCAP rating labels used by manufacturers in their advertisements – especially when they've received a five-star rating. But there's no requirement in Australia for dealers to display or disclose this information to the consumer. So if a car has received a low rating the manufacturer is under no obligation to let you know – which means they probably won't.

How ANCAP tests

ANCAP conducts a set of internationally recognised crash tests in independent test laboratories. Crash dummies are used in all tests to observe for any displacement during the crash and measure the forces placed on the occupants in a crash. The structural impact on the vehicle's occupant compartment is also assessed.

The following tests are conducted and a 1 to 5 star rating is given for each vehicle based on the cumulative test results:

  • Frontal offset test simulates crashing into another car. The car is crashed at 64km/h into a fixed barrier with a crushable aluminium face. Only 40% of the car's front on the driver's side makes initial contact with the barrier. Crash test dummies are placed in the vehicle to indicate the likely injuries resulting from the crash. Each vehicle is awarded a score out of 16.
  • Side impact test simulates a similar situation to an intersection crash, where one car crashes into the driver's side of another. A 950kg trolley with a crushable aluminium face is run into the driver's side of the stationary test car at 50km/h. Each vehicle is awarded a score out of 16.
  • Pole test simulates a vehicle crashing into a fixed object at 29km/h with contact in the line of the head of the seated driver. The pole is quite narrow and causes major penetration into the side of the car. Curtain airbags are particularly effective in reducing the chance of serious head injury in this type of crash. Cars with a low risk of head injury score two additional points for this test.
  • Pedestrian test gives an estimation of head and leg injuries to pedestrians hit by a car travelling at 40km/h. These types of crashes represent about 15% of fatal crashes in Australia and New Zealand. This figure can be as high as 30% in some urban areas.
  • Whiplash test simulates a rear-end crash equivalent to a stationary vehicle being hit at 32km/h. The test assesses two parts – a geometric measurement of the head restraint, and a dynamic test using the vehicle seat mounted to a sled.
  • Safety features: Three points are awarded for models with seatbelt reminders – a point for a driver reminder, a front passenger reminder and a reminder for all rear seat passengers. Points are also given if Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) and Electronic Stability Control (ESC) are fitted.

What kind of new car safety features are available?

Not all cars are created equal, so it's important to consider the safety features available when you're shopping for a new one. Some features will help you to avoid a crash while others will help to protect you in the event of one.

Crash avoidance features

  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC) detects car instability, oversteering and understeering, and puts the vehicle back on course by braking individual wheels and reducing engine torque. Since ANCAP made ESC a mandatory requirement in 2008 for vehicles to achieve the five-star rating, many manufacturers have since installed this feature as standard to receive the best safety scores. ESC can also be referred to as Electronic Stability Program (ESP), Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Active Stability Control (ASC) or Vehicle Stability Control (VSC).
  • Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) prevents the wheels from locking up as brake pressure is applied suddenly – often in an emergency or short stopping distance situation. It allows the driver to steer and gain control of the car without skidding or spinning out of control. ABS works together with ESC to provide greater control of the vehicle and helps to reduce the chance of crashing.
  • Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) helps to balance braking forces between the front and rear wheels. It varies the amount of force which is applied to individual brakes, taking into account road conditions, speed, load, and other factors.
  • Traction control prevents wheel spin and maintains vehicle stability during acceleration, when too much power is applied. It is particularly useful during wet driving conditions, when the road is slippery or when rapid acceleration is required.
  • Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA) gives drivers an audio and/or visual alert when they exceed the speed limit by a set speed, e.g. by 2km/hr or more.
  • Visibility (both seeing and being seen) is vital for detecting risks and hazards on the road. A white car is more visible in most driving conditions and driving with your headlights always on helps others to see you easily.

Crash protection features

  • Seat belt pre-tensioners tighten up any slack in the belt webbing in the event of a crash. This helps to hold the occupant secure and move them into the optimum crash position.
  • Active head restraints are situated on the head rest of the seat and during a rear-end crash move forward and up to automatically decrease the space between the restraint and the occupants head. This reduces the degree to which the head accelerates before making contact with the restraint.
  • Seat belt reminders are visual and/or audible warning devices used to alert vehicle occupants that a seat belt is not being worn.
  • Three-point seat belts are one single continuous length of webbing that spreads the impact forces more evenly across the passenger's torso and help to keep the upper body in place in the event of a collision.
  • Airbags are large nylon bags that inflate and deflate rapidly in the event of a severe frontal or side crash. Sensors are fitted at different points of the car and detect when a crash occurs. When the sensors all agree that the airbags should be deployed, the system triggers an inflator and ignite unit. The airbags inflate, splitting open the covers on the steering wheel or dash board, causing them to balloon in front of the occupant. As the occupants head strikes the airbag, it starts deflating. Vehicles can come with front, side, head and knee airbags.
  • Structural integrity: In a crash with a vehicle with sound structural integrity most of the energy will be absorbed and dissipated and the passenger compartment will keep its shape. This is also referred to as crumple zones. Areas that are more likely to injure occupants - like the steering column, dash, roof pillars, pedals, and floor panels - won't move excessively. The doors will also remain closed during the crash and will be able to be opened afterwards.