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A deadly double standard on safety

Is there a deadly double standard in car manufacturing when it comes to the safety of entry-level vehicles built in emerging-market nations?

An online article by the Associated Press (AP) contends so. In Brazil, now the world’s fourth largest auto market, safety experts say thousands of Brazilians are dying every year in auto accidents due to unsafe cars and the nation’s often dangerous driving conditions. Per an AP analysis of Brazilian Health Ministry data on deaths compared to the size of each country’s car fleet, the Brazilian death rate from passenger car accidents is nearly four times that of the United States.  In fact, the two countries are moving in opposite directions in survival rates—the United States recorded 40 percent fewer fatalities from car wrecks in 2010 compared with a decade before, while in Brazil, the number killed rose 71 percent according to the latest available data.

Experts and engineers inside the car manufacturing industry say that the culprits are the cars themselves, produced with weaker welds, scant safety features and inferior materials compared to similar models manufactured for US and European consumers.  Four of Brazil’s five best-selling cars failed their independent crash tests.  Dr. Dirceu Alves of Abramet, a Brazilian association of doctors that specializes in treating traffic accident victims, said that poorly built cars take an unnecessary toll. He said that the gravity of the injuries arriving at the hospitals is just ugly—injuries that should not be occurring.


SAFETY LAWS. Automakers in Brazil claim that their cars meet the nation’s safety laws, with some building even tougher cars because of the country’s poorly maintained roads, and rejected any notion that cost-cutting in production leads to fatalities.  But the country’s few safety activists perceive a deadly double standard, with automakers earning more money from selling cars that offer drivers fewer safeguards. “The manufacturers do this because the cars are a little cheaper to make and the demands of the Brazilian consumers are less; their knowledge of safety issues is lower than in Europe or the US,” said Maria Ines Dolci, coordinator of the Rio de Janeiro-based consumer defense group Proteste.


Manufacturers earn a 10-percent profit on Brazilian-made cars compared with 3 percent in the United States and a global average of 5 percent, according to IHS Automotive, an industry consulting firm. In Brazil, as in other emerging markets, the surging spending power of new middle-class households has outpaced consumer protections taken for granted in more developed countries. The problem extends beyond Brazil, with economic forecasts showing the majority of global growth in auto sales taking place in emerging-market nations as the world’s auto fleet doubles to 1.5 billion by 2020.

Frontal airbags and antilock braking systems (ABS) have been standard in industrial countries for years, but will be required by new laws only next year in Brazil.  The country will also have new impact regulations on paper at least, but regulators don’t have their own crash-test facility to verify automakers’ claims about vehicle performance, nor are there independent labs.  Experts say those requirements alone do not guarantee safety standards.  Some models in Brazil have air bags and ABS like the Chinese-made JAC J3, but it scored only one star in a recent crash test.

BLEAK RESULTS. The Latin New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), an independent pilot effort supported by the London-based FIA Foundation for auto safety and Euro NCAP, has run initial tests of Brazil’s most popular car models and the results are bleak.  The cheapest models of four of the five top-selling cars made by General Motors, Volkswagen and Fiat rated only one star out of five stars while other top-sellers also scored poorly.  A one-star rating means the car provides little protection in serious head-on crashes, compared to four- or five-star rated cars which are virtually the minimum that US and European consumers buy.

One American manufacturer whose car scored one star in the Latin NCAP test admitted that it is built on an outdated platform compared with the European four-star version of the same, but said it will have all its Brazilian-made cars built on updated, global platforms by 2015. Another US brand had no other comment than to say that its cars in Brazil are legal, after its top-selling model’s door unhinged and the passenger cabin bent into an inverted V shape during its crash test. An Italian automaker, whose best-selling car in Brazil also rated only one star asserted that in general, Brazilian projects receive more reinforcements within the car bodies to fortify them against the nation’s harsher roads and terrain.  A French carmaker claimed that the safety record of its cars is on par with autos of the same class in Brazil although one of its popular models scored only one star.

An engineer for a major US automaker, speaking only on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said he has watched for years as his company failed to implement more advanced safety features in Brazil, simply because the law did not require them. “The automakers are pleased to make more profitable cars for countries where the demands, whatever they may be, are less rigorous,” he said.  “It happens everywhere—India, China and Russia, for example.”                                                    (Sourced with permission from AP)

Meanwhile, the Asean NCAP, which is supported by the membership of the automobile associations of Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, recently released the first crash test results for cars in the region. The testing is a collaboration between the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (Miros) and Global NCAP.  Asean NCAP carried out frontal off-set crashes at 64 kilometers per hour to assess results for driver, passenger and child safety, applying the United Nations’ regulation for frontal impact according to the recommendations on vehicle safety included in the Global Plan of the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020. The 2012 Ford Fiesta LX Ti-VCT with seven airbags and the Honda City Grade S with two airbags scored five stars each for adult occupant protection, while the Toyota Vios 1.5J MT with two airbags and the Nissan March E MT with one airbag earned four stars each. The Perodua Myvi SX with two airbags got three stars, the Hyundai  i10 1.1 Epsilon with two airbags,  two stars and the Proton Saga Standard with one airbag, one star.     (Source: Auto, the international journal of the FIA)

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TAGS: Aida Sevilla-Mendoza, car safety, column, Motoring

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