A question of lives and money.
By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
Consumer associations in Mexico have launched a new campaign aimed at the 10 best-selling brands in the country — Chevrolet-General Motors, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Nissan, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen.
Its message is clear: Stop selling death-trap vehicles that do not include even the most basic safety features that have been mandatory in more advanced economies for years over even decades.
Mexico is the seventh largest vehicle manufacturer in the world. In 2016 it produced just over 3.5 million cars, placing it directly above Spain (8th), Canada (9th) and Brazil (10th) and just below India (5th) and South Korea (6th). Many of the cars it produces include the most advanced vehicle safety features, but few of them are sold on the domestic market, especially at the lower end.
In recent years the non-profit organization Latin New Car Assessment Program (LNCAP), along with its affiliate Global New Car Assessment Program (GNCAP), has crash tested scores of cars. Low-end cars sold by Ford, Fiat, Kia, Volkswagen, Renault, Suzuki, Datsun, Hyundai, Nissan and others have all scored zero out of five on vehicle safety in middle- and low-income countries around the world. Many of the vehicles in question lack minimum safety features that have been mandatory in the U.S. and European Union for almost two decades.
To give an idea of the difference this can make in terms of your chances of survival in the event of a crash, here is a video of a 2015 red Nissan Tsuru, manufactured for sale in Mexico, suffering a head-on collision with a 2016 Nissan Versa, made for the U.S. market.
In the shot taken from above both vehicles appear to crumple like cans of spinach in Popeye’s fist. But it’s what happens inside the cars that really matters. In the red car, the dummy’s face smashes into the steering wheel as glass shards scatter everywhere. The entire front of the cabin caves in, crushing the dummy’s knees against the dashboard.
By contrast, the passenger compartment of the silver made-for-the-US car remains more or less in tact, despite the front-end of the car being crushed by the force of impact. The dummy flies forward in the seat belt, but front and side airbags cushion the blow. The windshield cracks, but doesn’t shatter.
On crash safety tests run by LNCAP, the Versa scored four out of five stars. The Tsuru scored zero. Yet both cars were manufactured in Mexico.
Coincidentally, the same day LNCAP announced its intention to crash-test the Tsuru, in 2016, Nissan, clearly aware of the car’s failings, said it would stop selling the model in May 2017. But many other automotive manufacturers continue to produce and sell zero-star cars in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. They include the Ford Ka and the Chevrolet Aveo, two of the most widely sold cars in Mexico.
Adding basic safety features to these low-end models could save thousands of lives in the coming years. According to a 2016 report by Global NCAP and the Inter-American Development Bank, enforcing the U.N.’s minimum recommended vehicle safety standards in just four Latin American countries — Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil — could save over 40,000 people and prevent over 440,000 injuries by 2030.
The governments of Argentina and Brazil have already made airbags mandatory. The Mexican government, ever the friend of global car manufacturers, took a slightly different tack. It passed new regulations ostensibly aimed at making vehicles safer, but it made the rules sufficiently vague so as to enable the car companies to more or less continue conducting business as usual, as NPR reported:
While they specify that cars need to protect the passenger in front and side collisions, they don’t specify how, so it’s up to the manufacturers to decide. And section 6.4 of the regulations says that manufacturers can conduct their own vehicle safety tests — and if the tests meet certain requirements they’ll be considered valid forever, regardless of what other crash testers might find.
With the car companies still having the final say on how safe their cars are, Mexico’s consumer associations have decided to take matters into their own hands, by sending signed petitions to the CEOs of the ten biggest selling brands in Mexico demanding that all their product ranges include the following basic safety features:
- ABS brakes, which reduce the braking distance and prevent tires from skidding in emergency braking.
- Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which prevents skids and rollovers in emergency maneuvers.
- Anchors for child retention systems (Isofix or Latch), which attach child seats to the vehicle structure providing greater protection to children and babies.
- Front and side impact guards, which provide added protection for occupants in the event of a frontal or lateral collision.
- Mandatory Airbags.
- Three-point seat belts for all passengers.
- Pedestrian protection systems, which minimize the possible injuries suffered by pedestrians or cyclists in the event of impact
If enough pressure is applied in the right places, car companies may eventually buckle in this battle between lives and dollars. Much will depend on whether Mexico’s next government adopts a more adversarial approach on the issue than the current one.
Many of the most unsafe cars, such as Nissan’s Tsuru, are already being phased off the manufacturing line. Given that the 10 most dangerous cars in Mexico are also the most widely sold, since they are also the most economical, this trend could eventually have serious financial implications for car manufacturers. If they decide to absorb the additional costs of building safer cars themselves, it will mean sacrificing part of their profits. If they pass the costs onto consumers, it could lead to declining sales at the lower end of the market.
Whichever option the car companies go for, one thing is clear: given the number of lives that could be saved and injuries that could be prevented by making cars in poorer countries as safe as they are in richer countries, or at least safer than they are now, which is not safe at all, it would be a price worth paying. By Don Quijones.
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