It’s reckoned that as many as 100,000 lives have been saved by European car safety laws. Between 2000 and 2012 we saw a massive reduction in fatalities among drivers and passengers thanks to dramatic improvements in the car industry’s safety standards.

The change didn’t happen on its own. It is a European Union success story – a success story in which researchers at Sunderland University played their part.

The safety drive began in the mid-1990s when a group of MEPs led by the then leader of the Labour group of MEPs Alan Donnelly began re-writing European laws on car safety. They drew on support from experts across Donnelly’s region the North East.

The standards developed by Donnelly and the other MEPs were taken up as the global standard by the international safety watchdog NCAP.

And last year NCAP awarded its prestigious Consumer Champion Award to the European Parliament to mark the 20th anniversary of the law’s introduction.

And Donnelly got to present the award to the University of Sunderland in recognition of its role in the reforms in February. Donnelly said: “What is really exciting is that Sunderland is carrying on with its pioneering research and driving the next generation of improvements in vehicle safety standards.

“This is a very human success story. Thousands of families have been saved from the misery caused by fatal accidents.

“To make it happen the brilliant researchers needed the support of legislators because there was strong opposition from major European car manufacturers, including here in the UK. They claimed improved safety features would make their cars economically uncompetitive. “

“It was a myth. And we proved it was wrong with the help from the FIA, the governing body for Formula One motorsport and the informal help of Nissan engineers in Tyne and Wear.The breakthrough came when Donnelly invited Dr Martin Bangemann, the German vice-president of the European Commission, to visit Sunderland University to meet a group of experts. It convinced that the laws could and should be changed.

Donnelly and the experts showed that safety improvements could be made at minimal extra cost – and because the rules were applied equally to every manufacturer none of them lost out.

Improved car safety standards resulted in 100,000 fewer fatalities on Europe’s roads between 2000 and 2012, at least 40,000 of which can be directly attributed to Donnelly’s legislation.

Twenty years on the legislation has been adopted as a global standard by the United Nations and is now applied by about 50 countries worldwide. Indeed, a key goal of the current UN Decade of Action for Road Safety is to encourage all UN Member States to apply them by 2020.

However, technology never stands still and EU-funded research conducted by our universities, including Sunderland, could make vehicles safer for the driving public, and more environmentally friendly.

Sunderland University has been a major partner in driving forward the EU’s €1 billion Graphene Flagship project over the past two years.

The University’s iGCAuto project, which concludes in March 2016, has been analysing how Graphene behaves when used to enhance the advanced composite materials used in the production of cars.

It is about transferring technologies from academic laboratories to everyday use in multiple industries. This could develop the technologies for the next generation of vehicle safety – allowing cars to be lighter and greener, without compromising safety.

So when people complain that Europe today is too powerful and interferes in too many aspects of their lives, car safety standards is a testament to how Europe acting together is uniquely placed to play a positive role in protecting consumers and setting high industry standards by establishing strong rules to govern the single market.

Leadership in Europe is particularly important to the North East which makes more cars in a year than the whole of Italy and runs an export surplus with the EU. As Britain’s most important export market, the EU single market continues to safeguard many thousands of local jobs in factories like Nissan, and along the supply chain.

Britain can’t afford to abandon that market. Leaving the EU would be a betrayal of the workers whose livelihoods depend on access to the single market, and of the driving public across the UK.

Don Brind is a former Labour Party Press Officer. He tweets at @brinddon.