June 2001

Update Feb 2006: Add electronic stability control on vehicles to the list!


International harmonisation of vehicle safety regulations has brought benefits to manufacturers, regulators and consumers. However, one disadvantage is that the system is geared around mandatory compliance and most safety initiatives now have to clear a demanding benefit-cost hurdle before being incorporated in such mandatory standards. Safety initiatives that do not clearly have a significant effect on overall road trauma are likely to be ignored by the regulatory system and there is reduced incentive for innovation.

This approach also results in a dilemma for vehicle manufacturers who might be reluctant to invest research and development resources on safety innovations that are not needed to "pass" the safety regulations.

Where such equipment is introduced as an optional extra the price might be set to recover those development costs according to the anticipated demand for the feature. This can result in prices that deter many consumers.

There are dozens of vehicle-related safety countermeasures. Many contribute in a small way to protecting vehicle occupants but it is evident that, by themselves, many of these countermeasures could not be justified as mandatory features under the prevailing regulatory environment.

There is a very wide range in crashworthiness between the best and worst performing vehicles in each class, despite all of the vehicles complying with mandatory safety standards. Swedish research (Folksam) has estimated that fatal and serious injuries would reduce by 40% if all cars were designed to equal the crashworthiness of the best current car in each class. One factor is that the safety features on the better vehicles combine to give occupants good all round protection.

How can such safety features be encouraged for popular vehicles?

Availability of safety equipment

The key may be to give consumers the choice of ordering vehicles with optional safety features rather than letting manufacturers choose the equipment that is available as standard or optional equipment on each vehicle model.

The concept is that a regulation should be developed that requires certain items safety equipment to be available at least as an option for every vehicle model. The fitting of the equipment would not be mandatory and therefore it would not need to clear the regulatory benefit-cost hurdle.

In some cases manufacturers might decide to make the feature standard equipment - a good outcome for road safety. In cases where they decided to provide a safety feature as an optional extra consumers would at least have the choice of paying for the feature. Road safety authorities could then encourage uptake of the feature by consumers.

An additional advantage of this approach is that manufacturers would probably put more research and development resources into production of the feature and the costs would be defrayed across all vehicle sales, not just those where the feature is purchased as an option.

Regulations to introduce this idea would need to be flexible and responsive to technological developments. They should be monitored to ensure that they do not hinder road safety initiatives through being design restrictive.

Types of safety features that could be included

The following is a provisional list of safety equipment that could be included in this proposal.

Provisional list of Optional Safety Equipment

Item Comment
Driver airbag Still not standard on some vehicles in some countries. Apparently not needed to pass current front impact regulations.
Passenger airbag Apparently not needed to pass current front impact regulations.
Side airbags (torso) for front occupants Not needed to pass current side impact regulations.
Head-protecting side airbags for front occupants Recent research (eg IIHS) suggests major benefit from head-protecting side airbags
Side airbags for rear seat occupants
Removable infant capsule and child seats or integrated child seat. Would encourage improved compatibility between child restraint and vehicle. Integrated child seats desirable but may not suit all consumers.
3-point seat belt in centre rear seat Should be mandatory but that could be years away
Height adjustable front seat belts  
Head restraints for all seating positions  
Adjustable pedals or pedal extensions. To cater for short-legged drivers so they do not need to sit too close to the steering wheel.
Engine immobiliser  Theft and joy-riding deterrent
Cargo barrier for wagons and commercial vehicles Occupants of these vehicles may not appreciate the risk in a severe crash from loose cargo.
Top speed limiter Usually set in engine management chip but current settings are ridiculously high. Consumers, particularly fleets, should be able to purchase vehicles that cannot exceed a preset speed (say 120km/h in Australia). This would also be a very effective theft/joy-riding deterrent.
Speed alarm Set by driver or, preferably, set by onboard navigation system according to the speed zone (i.e. if an onboard navigation system is fitted then it must have speed alarm or speed limiting capability).
ABS brakes  
Seat belt reminder alarms Please can these be made to only sound when forward gear is engaged and the seat belt is not buckled. Consideration should be given to inconvenience actions if the seat belt is not worn (e.g. radio won't work, air conditioner won't work, speed cannot exceed 10km/h etc). Update Feb06: now part of Euro NCAP & ANCAP assessment.
Headlights "on" warning or Daytime Running Lights
Alternative is for headlights to automatically extinguish when the vehicle is parked
Automatic headlight activation In many cities the increasing use of poorly lit tunnels means drivers should be using headlights during the daytime for parts of their journey.
Pedestrian detection system for reversing vehicle + video camera
Recent research has found that toddlers are at risk from vehicles reversing in private driveways. These cases are not treated as road accidents and so tend to be overlooked by road safety authorities.
Electrically adjustable external mirrors Encourages drivers to adjust the mirrors for optimum view.
Rear window wipers for wagons and hatchbacks Seem to be widely fitted.
Under-run guards for high-ground-clearance vehicles. Improves vehicle to vehicle compatibility.
Engine and fuel cut-off and hazard lights activate in event of severe crash . Other features could be that doors unlock, an interior light comes on and that a mobile phone (if available) still has power - these features require a backup power supply


It is recommended that an ECE Regulation be formulated to implement this idea.

For several years Japan NCAP has provided consumers with a list of safety features provided on each vehicle model. Australian NCAP recently recommended to EuroNCAP that this approach should be included in the EuroNCAP Assessment Protocol.

Once an international regulation for optional safety equipment was introduced NCAP organisations around the world could monitor the uptake of these features as optional or standard equipment and provide consumers with this information. The intention would be to encourage manufactures to make the equipment standard and to encourage consumers to choose the equipment if it is optional.


Comments on this paper can be provided to:

Michael Paine

Please indicate whether you have any objections to your comments being made public.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or policy of any organisation.

Road Safety Links

Folksam report on car safety and the effects of safety equipment. (PDF)