Cars to wear soft bonnets and skirts for safer cars

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The Independent Online
Motor manufacturers are facing their greatest challenge - to prevent pedestrians from serious injury in a collision with a car.

Neil Kinnock, the EU Transport Commissioner, is spearheading a drive to reduce the number of pedestrians killed on the roads. Last year, more than 8,000 people lost their lives on highways in Europe.

A draft directive is in the pipeline, which would mean that no one should suffer serious injury in collision with a car travelling at 25mph. Mr Kinnock said in July that he would be introducing legislation next year.

"No car on the road at present would meet that," said Gary Brown, project engineer at Mira, the centre for automotive research. The proposals would require new models, from 2000, to pass stringent "head-and-leg" tests.

Trials conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory earlier this year show that today's cars would not pass the "pedestrian friendliness" criteria. Plastic heads and legs were thrown at 13 family saloons to see what damage a human would sustain. The results were conclusive. "No car tested provides sufficient protection to meet the proposed legalisation," said the researchers. Among those tested were the Ford Mondeo, the Mercedes C-class and the Vauxhall Vectra.

Manufacturers face completely overhauling the bonnets and bumpers to meet the draft directive. Car-makers claim that the alterations - developing an energy-absorbing nose, changing the bonnet shape and introducing a safety skirt - would put up the price of a saloon by pounds 1,500.

Safety experts are unimpressed. In 1995, 686 pedestrians lost their lives in collisions with cars on Britain's roads. "These type of cost benefits calculations are not realistic," said Murray Mackay, professor of transport safety at Birmingham University. "We used to have toughened glass windscreens years ago and it was said then that laminated glass would be too expensive. So 1,000 eyes were needlessly blinded."

Motoring trade associations have labelled the latest proposals "safety fiction". "Cars and pedestrians are incompatible," says James Rosenstein, a spokesman for the ACEA, which represents car manufacturers in Europe. "If you soften a car front then you reduce the risk to pedestrians and increase it for the car's occupants. It is not a simple thing."

Professor Mackay also disputes the car-makers' claim that most of the damage is done not by the car but by bodies bouncing off pavements: "We proved in the early Eighties that it was the initial impact that caused the damage."

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety believes that the number of pedestrians killed in car crashes would drop by 7 per cent, and serious injuries would be cut by more than a fifth by the changes.

A spokesman for the RAC said: "... it is more important to save lives than to look good."