When it comes to car safety in SA, we are the crash dummies
Not all cars are equal, and people in emerging economies have to put up with lower safety standards
We’re used to seemingly identical products varying quite substantially from country to country, and even province to province, in unseen ways. Nando’s sauces are hotter in KwaZulu-Natal than in other provinces, Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK tastes very different to Cadbury’s in SA, and Johnson’s baby lotion doesn’t smell the same in all its markets.
The same applies to cars. They may look just the same in London and Limpopo – apart from the left-hand versus right-hand drive thing – but when it comes to hidden-from-view safety features, they vary quite considerably. In direct proportion to each market population’s general awareness of safety features and how much they matter to them, in fact. In Europe, the US, parts of Asia and Australia, motorists know a lot and care a lot about safety features, look for them in the cars they buy, and base much of their car choice on safety spec and NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) ratings.
As with other products and services, we consumers get what we are are willing to accept, it’s as simple as that.
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: about 14,000 a year. Expressed as road deaths per 100,000 registered vehicles, Wikipedia puts SA’s figure at about 134, compared with the US’ 10.9 and UK’s 2.9. But how many of us interrogate the safety features when we are looking to buy ourselves or our children a car, or even know what’s on offer, and how the technology protects us or helps prevent accidents?
Speaking in November at a joint Global NCAP/Automobile Association press conference to reveal the safety ratings of four SA vehicles which were crash-tested in a Munich facility a couple of months earlier, Global NCAP’s technical director Alejandro Furas said most motor manufacturers deliberately chose to under-spec some of their models in terms of safety features in African and other “developing” markets.
That comment was aimed mainly at the Nissan MP300 “Hardbody” bakkie, which turned out to be anything but in a fairly low-speed crash, hence its zero-star rating for the driver and front passenger. That bakkie isn’t sold in any non-African country – regulation and consumer awareness wouldn’t allow for it.
What of the three other SA cars crash-tested – the Toyota Yaris, Hyundai i20 and Kia Picanto – which fared a lot better than the MP300?
The Yaris fared the best, scoring a three-star safety rating for both adult and child passengers, the latter because it’s the only one of three hatchbacks that had three-point belts in all positions, including the middle back seat. But only the Picanto’s body shell was “stable”, although its front footwell was declared unstable. An unstable body shells means the car is “not capable of withstanding further loadings”. In other words, a crash at higher speed would probably see the vehicles disintegrate.
When Carte Blanche presenter Devi Sankaree Govender put it to Toyota SA’s senior VP for sales and marketing, Calvin Hamman, that the Yaris sold in SA had fewer safety features than its European counterpart, he said: “It is the same car, manufactured in the same factory to the same standard with the same parts.”
When she mentioned that the European car had seven airbags vs the SA version’s two, Hamman said: “Look, that is specifications. This car was the most basic specced vehicle.” And therein lies a story. NCAP always tests the base (cheapest) model of a car, firmly believing that consumers should not have to pay extra for safety equipment. Sound systems, yes; leather seats, yes – airbags, no.
Toyota SA told me later that Hamman was referring to the Yaris sold in Asean (Southeast Asian countries), not the European version. That begs the question: If the Asean and SA Yaris are made in the same Thailand factory, why did the Asian one score the top safety rating of five stars in the front-impact Asean NCAP test while the SA one scored three in Global NCAP’s fontal crash test, given the tests are standardised in every way, including the fairly low speed of 64km/h?
Mainly because of a knee bag. The Asian Yaris has a front driver knee bag in all models, whereas in SA only the most expensive of the five Yaris models (the 1.5 Sport) has that knee bag.
As for the body shell stability issue, Furas said: “Even in the same plant, on different production lines or even in the same production line, cars’ structure, welding processes and even reinforcements do vary. When we penalised the South African Yaris and Toyota disagreed, we proposed that Toyota prove to us that in a test at a little higher speed and load, that the structure would stay the same as in our official test. We always invited the car makers to prove us wrong.”
That hasn’t happened, he said.
“Do people in emerging economies deserve less standard safety for their cars while paying much more for those cars?” Furas asked.
The answer is clearly no. But until more car buyers ask why mass-market cars don’t have ESC or knee and side airbags, that’s exactly what we are going to continue to get.