As we’ve reported previously, the 2007 MINI design was being largely shaped by the new European pedestrian impact regulations recently put in place. However we thought a closer look at the subject might be helpful in understanding what the MINI design team were up against in designing the R56.

For a topic like this, an expert opinion was clearly in order. Luckily we just happen to know one of the best. Long time MotoringFile reader and MINI owner Eric Kennedy knows all about the auto-relate injuries. He’s a military and auto safety researcher at Virginia Tech, who is currently working on projects that determine the human tolerance to impact loading (i.e. car crashes), and evaluating occupant protection systems. To say that he’s qualified would be an understatement.

R56 Design Impacts Pedestrians

As I think people are now well aware, the latest R56 MINI is designed to meet (or exceed) the European Enhanced Vehicle Committee (EEVC) pedestrian safety standards. At present, there are two required tests for the European Union’s pedestrian regulation: a bumper impact to a simulated adult lower leg, as well as an impact of a simulated child’s head to the hood, both of which are repeatedly conducted at various locations along the car’s front end. Starting in 2010, two additional tests will be phased in to the regulation: a simulated adult upper leg to the leading edge of the hood, as well as a simulated adult head strike to the hood.

All of this pedestrian testing would seamlessly pass by the unwary consumer, if only it didn’t have such a pronounced effect on the styling of cars. We’re (slowly) approaching the eve of the introduction of the R56 in the US and with each review, it seems quite a bit of the attention is focused on the car’s newly styled front end. Part of the MINI’s charm, its personality, is based upon its style, the look, the original wheels-at-the-corners and tight sheet metal concept that Alex Issigonis penned nearly 50 years ago. For a MINI to be a Mini, and of course to us as MINI enthusiasts, the shape can’t change. The proportions need to stay the same, for they are so integral into what sets the MINI apart from all the other cars on the road. I’m sure this put MINI in quite a difficult situation, as they explored design concepts for the R56, trying to provide space for pedestrian protection while retaining the “MINI” look.

Before we all run off and condemn the European safety regulations, I think it becomes useful to look at the pedestrian injury problem in a bit more depth. I’m sure there will be people that land on both sides of the fence about the safety regulations, but for either argument, it is necessary to know the statistics that drove this type of pedestrian protection regulation.

In Europe, there are roughly 40,000 traffic related fatalities per year. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the same number as killed in the United States every year in traffic accidents. But, in the United States, pedestrians account for only about 10% of our traffic fatalities, approximately 4000 pedestrian fatalities per year. If you compare that number to Europe, the latest numbers I have seen put the pedestrian fatality numbers at about 8000 people per year. The percentage varies wildly from country to country, with pedestrian fatalities in the UK approaching 25% of all traffic fatalities and falling to less than 10% in the Netherlands. Incidentally, if you look beyond Europe, the percentage of pedestrian fatalities in Japan is about 25% of all traffic fatalities and this number is over 40% in developing and densely populated countries such as Thailand. As a rule of thumb, for each fatality, there are 10 or more people hospitalized with serious injuries, so in Europe alone, there are over 80,000 pedestrians seriously injured by automobiles each year.

It is with those numbers that the European community has penned the pedestrian crash test regulations. The ultimate goal is a reduction of approximately half of all pedestrian fatalities suffered in the European Union. According to current estimates, with two of the four pedestrian crash tests in place, if all cars in Europe were to meet the current pedestrian crash test standards, about 2000 lives and approximately 20,000 serious injuries would be saved each year.

So how are auto manufacturers meeting these requirements? Well, currently, there are two main design concepts. In order to prevent fatal head-strikes on the hood, automakers are forced to create some crush space between the hood and the engine block. There are basically two ways the safety community has been looking into this: 1) active hoods and 2) passive hoods. The active hood would actually deploy the hood away from the engine in the event of a pedestrian impact, allowing for more flexibility in vehicle styling and a sleeker hood line. It is currently installed in the European Honda Legend, the Citroen C6, and the Jaguar XK. I have heard estimates from a reliable source that active hood systems add about $500 to the price of a new car, which is substantially more expensive than similar pyrotechnic safety devices such as airbag modules (around $20). This is mostly due to difficulties with the deployment sensors (detecting pedestrian impacts is much more difficult than detecting a frontal crash), the fact that these systems need to survive while being exposed to the elements, and of course the lack of market penetration for this new technology.

Mostly because of the cost and complexity with the active hood system, the passive hood is what nearly all European cars are currently going with in their current designs. The passive system, simply put, permanently designs a dead-zone between the hood and the internals of the engine compartment. Of course, this is the culprit for the high hood line of the MINI’s new front end.

So it seems the inflated hood line may be here to stay, at least for the short term. But, if you consider what the new design accomplishes in terms of packaging both safety and styling, the accomplishments of MINI’s engineers are pretty impressive. While it is true that the MINI’s new nose may not have the charm of the R50/R53’s well-proportioned lines, I think we have to be appreciative of the fact that the latest MINI can retain so much of the flavor of the Mini’s and MINI’s of the past, while continuing to keep up with the increasingly stringent safety regulations.

And finally, just in case you’re wondering. The European New Car Assessment Program (EuroNCAP), which is different than the EEVC, has been conducting crash tests for assessing pedestrian safety since 1997. In 2002, the R50/R53 MINI was rated for pedestrian impacts with one out of a possible four stars, the lowest possible rating. That rating was an unwelcome blemish to an otherwise strong crash test record for the outgoing model.

For information on how these pedestrian tests are conducted, see the EuroNCAP test procedures or protocol (Note: although a separate entity, the EuroNCAP uses the EEVC’s test methods, for each of the four different pedestrian tests).

Written by Eric Kennedy