Unsafe cars are deliberately being sold in SA. This is why
The shocking revelation about the Nissan NP300's 'safety' has uncovered a far wider problem
The revelation on Friday that one of SA’s best-selling bakkies, the Nissan NP300 double-cab, has a zero safety rating for its front passengers would probably have come as a big shock to everyone – except Nissan.
“All the manufacturers know how their vehicles perform in a crash test, and they know the risk to the occupants,” said Alejandro Furas, technical director of Global NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme).
“They are using very old technology in cars they sell in developing countries, so it’s up to us to tell consumers how unsafe they are, because the manufacturers won’t,” Furas said.
That’s just what Global NCAP, in conjunction with South Africa’s Automobile Association (AA), did in the case of the NP300 and three top-selling hatchbacks: the Toyota Yaris, Hyundai i20 and Kia Picanto.
Between them, those hatchbacks make up 65% of sales of cars less than R200,000.
Posing as private buyers, they bought the base models from local dealerships and had them transported to a crash test facility outside Munich.
I was among a small group of South African journalists whom Global NCAP and the AA flew to Munich to witness those crash tests. Well, to two of them at least.
Given the level of detail that goes into the preparation of the cars and the crash-test dummies – two adults up front and two children (a three-year-old and 18-month old) in the back – the engineers can only crash one car a day.
So we saw the i20 propelled into the barrier on the first day and the Yaris on the second.
Both the Hyundai i20 and the Kia Picanto were given a three-star safety rating for adults and two stars for children. In the Picanto’s case, the seat carrying the three-year-old in the Picanto came loose from its fastening on impact.
The best of the four was the Toyota Yaris, scoring a three-star safety rating for both adult and child passengers.
Only the Yaris had three-point belts in all positions, the seatbelt being any car’s primary safety mechanism. “That’s of high concern to us,” Furas said.
Shockingly, Global NCAP declared that only the Picanto’s body shell was “stable”, although its front footwell area was declared unstable.
An unstable body shell means the car is “not capable of withstanding further loadings”. In other words, a crash at higher speed would probably see the vehicles disintegrate.
Again, those same cars sold in other markets all have stable body shells.
By far the most spectacular and shocking test crash was that of the Nissan NP300.
The front crumpled completely as it hit the barrier, and the driver’s door popped open. The children in the back were slightly better off, mainly because the crumpled front protected them, hence the two-star safety rating for children.
Sadly, we journalists missed seeing that crash, because the bakkie was held up by European customs agents.
Furas didn’t mince his words at the Johannesburg press conference revealing the results on Friday.
“For Nissan to call that vehicle ‘Hardbody’ is misleading,” he said. “As is claiming that it has a ‘safety shield’.”
Here’s the thing: the motor manufacturers know how to equip cars with safety equipment that saves lives. Lots of them: electronic stability control (which stops cars from skidding out of control or helps recover from a skid), front and side airbag protection, and pedestrian protection. But they just choose not to put them into cars sold into some markets, such as South Africa.
A version of the Hyundai i20, for example, is sold in Europe with electronic stability control as a standard feature, along with six airbags (as opposed to two in the SA model) and autonomous emergency braking.
And it sells for less than €11,000 Euro, compared with the equivalent of about €14,000 Euro for the South African version, which has just two airbags and ABS brakes.
They choose not to because developing counties such as South Africa lack legislation around vehicle safety, and the car-buying population, especially at the entry-level end of the market, lacks awareness of safety issues.
So what’s the solution?
In other countries, government incentivising motor manufactures to add spec with tax breaks, has been hugely successful.
“And if one manufacturer decides to go for five-star safety in a vehicle, competitors are sure to follow suit,” Furas said.
But by far the biggest factor is consumer awareness.
If consumers rate safety features along with price, manufacturers would soon see the merit in putting those added extra elements, including lifesaving protections, into their cars.
If any nation should be obsessed with car safety features, it’s South Africans. Our road death toll is among the highest in the world, more than 14,000 last year.
Paramedics and the loved ones of those who’ve died in car crashes know all too well what happens to human bodies in car crashes, even at relatively low-speed ones.
For the rest of us, it makes sense to take heed of the information that those hardy crash test dummies tell us – it’s that that leads to the NCAP safety ratings.
We consumers get what we are willing to put up with. It’s high time we started demanding more from the motor manufacturers in car safety features.