Why Thatcham Research crashes cars to keep insurance premiums down

Your car premium would not be so competitive if a Berkshire company hadn’t smashed your car to bits first.

Airbag exploded

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Thatcham Research is the car insurance industry’s vehicle interrogation centre. Everything from a Fiat Panda to a high-end Range Rover emerges, often, almost unrecognisable.

The crash test information extraction process Thatcham undertakes helps insurers understand how easily or difficult a car can be repaired. That ultimately reflects on your premium. To do that, it has to crash the cars first.

Fiat Panda crashed

Fiat Panda: received zero stars for safety in crash tests

Boiling it down, Thatcham is about two things: safer car design and cheaper repairs.

A big part of Thatcham’s task is working with the Association of British Insurer’s (ABI) Group Rating system. “Over half of all money paid out in motor insurance claims goes on repairing cars,” says Thatcham. “The cost of spare parts and the times taken by repairers are therefore major factors in pricing motor insurance.”

How hard are car makers trying?

Some try harder than others but car safety is much improved from a decade ago. Much of the process to make your car safer is a conversation between Thatcham’s engineers and car designers.

One example is the full-frontal barrier test. This is a low speed test but it puts the spotlight on bumpers – how effectively they fend off scrapes.

This, in turn, is also a discussion about height: if car design teams can be persuaded to build bumpers at a common distance from the ground, then cars ‘bump’ better against each other. That means lower repair costs for the insurer and you.

It’s a similar story for paintwork: persuading manufacturers to stick to a shared format for reporting tech advances that can be understood quickly.


Thatcham technicians fix crashed cars to calculate repair costs

This discussion extends to bodywork and the myriad types of materials used (high strength, ultra-high strength, aluminium, carbon fibre – a long list). It also extends to the joining techniques and how easy it is to remove a damaged part and replace it quickly.

How can I be safer behind the wheel?

AEB or Autonomous emergency braking checks the road ahead with a radar or cameras. They are usually integrated into the car’s front grill or company logo. AEB applies the brakes when a potential crash with another vehicle, pedestrian or cyclist is anticipated.

Thatcham considers AEB the most important safety advance since the seatbelt. But not all manufacturers include it as standard kit – still.

The option, labelled differently by different manufacturers – for example Volvo tag it ‘City Safety’ – can cost just a couple of hundred pounds on the options list. Some manufacturers include it as part of a more expensive ‘safety pack’.

"There's an urgent need to change the consumer and fleet mind-set around car safety,” says Thatcham. “Especially when AEB can cost as little as £200 per car. Safety should be a deal-breaker, not a nice to have. If it doesn't have AEB, it shouldn't be a sale."

AEB key points

  • Thatcham thinks AEB could save 1,100 lives and prevent more than 120,000 casualties in the UK during the next decade
  • These stats are reinforced backed up by an independent study by Euro NCAP, the car safety program assessor backed by the EU. It thinks almost 40% of rear-end crashes could be avoided
  • Most collisions occur at speeds of less than 20mph in the UK. So AEB tech could make a big impact on cutting accidents – and therefore premiums

Are unsafe cars still sold?

Thatcham Research says unsafe cars are still sold. And it’s not just cheap cars that are unsafe. Even vehicles that cost £50,000-plus don’t meet the highest safety standards.

In December 2018 Thatcham Research gave the £9,510 Fiat Panda zero stars for safety – the maximum is five – after extensive testing.

Matthew Avery, director of research, at Thatcham says he’s troubled because Fiat’s Panda is seen as a sensible choice for many young drivers and small families.

“But the only safety technology fitted were seatbelt reminders and the rear system failed to meet requirements, so wasn’t even rated. Where budgets are tight, consider a safer small car second-hand, like the five-star Seat Ibiza.”

Seat Ibiza

The Seat Ibiza has a five-star safety rating

While the Panda is an old design, Jeep’s all-new Wrangler came out badly in testing at the end of 2018 too. It scored just a one-star Euro NCAP rating and a 50% adult occupant protection score.

“Unlike the Panda, the Jeep Wrangler is an entirely new vehicle and doesn’t come cheap,” said Avery. “Buyers outlaying over £50,000 on a car should expect more than a one-star safety rating. No AEB system is fitted, which is unheard of in this price bracket.”

There were a number of issues with the Wrangler in impact testing also – deformation of the footwell and damage to connecting structures while part of the dashboard was seen as a risk to occupants.

How can I buy safer?

If you’re in the market for a new car check out the ‘My Vehicle’ section of Thatcham’s website. This will give you an accurate picture of the insurance group rating of the exact model – the higher the group number the higher the premium is likely to be.

“Insurers are not required to follow the advisory group ratings and it is therefore advisable to compare premiums before making any purchasing decision based on the insurance group,” says Thatcham.

The future of security and risk is increasingly cyber-linked. Many underwriters are looking hard at automated driving liability and regulations at autonomous tech.

Meanwhile thefts involving keyless entry systems are on the rise: a common technique is targeting a vehicle and amplifying the radio signal of the owner’s key fob from inside a house, before relaying it to a third party.

Digital deterrents

  • Consider shielding devices work: Faraday pouches and containers will block the signal from a keyless entry fob says Thatcham “but test this yourself to make sure it is effective”
  • If your car has a keyless entry system, can the fob be switched off overnight?
  • Speak to your dealer about software updates and whether new key fobs with added security are available

How is your car’s rating assessed by Thatcham?

  • It assesses the new car price and all trim variations and the cost of settlement in the event of a ‘total loss’
  • Performance including the 0-60 mph acceleration time as well as top speed
  • Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB): standard fitment and their effectiveness
  • Standard vehicle security levels are measured, determined by Thatcham Research’s New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA)
  • Parts pricing – these are taken from a standard list of 23 ‘basket’ parts deemed the most commonly damaged panels and components in an accident

Brief history of Thatcham

Thatcham Research was born in 1969. It’s the UK’s only not-for-profit crash safety research centre. It’s funded by the UK insurance industry and its remit is to “contain or reduce the cost of motor claims” without compromising safety standards.

The work is not just about crash dummies, seatbelts and exploding airbags. Security – increasingly cybersecurity – features big. Car theft increasingly involves keyless entry systems and Thatcham scrutinises tracking and security system performance, not to mention online security threats.

In total it hopes its work on safety systems and research should help save motorists £450m-£700m by 2020.

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