Safety, money and standards: what leads to second class lives

Latin NCAP has recently urged GM to sell safer cars in Latin America. In a letter to GM CEO, Mary Barra, the president of the entity, Maria Fernanda Rodriguez, has reminded the company of its very low scores in five years of tests (1.8 out of 5 possible stars) and of the most recent result, from crashing the Chevrolet Aveo. It received no stars at all in adult protection. Barra has given a response to that urge in an interview to David Sirota, from International Business Times (IBT). In short, she says GM already offers an Aveo with airbags, as an option, and that a manufacturer should be able to sell cheaper products in order to make sure people have access to transportation. I have also heard the same point from Vincent Cobee, Global Head of Datsun, at the Nissan360 event in California in August 2013. But the question is: how suitable is it to invoke transportation access in order to sell unsafer cars? Ultimately, what you may end up saying is that some lives are worth more than others. But have Barra and Cobee said so?

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In her interview to IBT, GM CEO has stressed that “after all a person is a person”, what would demand global safety standards to be created. And this is the sensible part of her speech. At the same time, she has declined to support higher safety standards, the ones developed countries adopt as the rule for all countries, saying GM had to respect all governments. As if any of them would forbid stability control or ABS to be used in any new car. And GM has recently announced it would adopt voluntary safety standards in the USA. Why not all over the world? One of the excuses is cost.

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This was the same speech Cobee gave me back in 2013. He was presenting the Datsun GO and the car did not feature airbags or ABS. When I questioned him about that, he told me China kills 300,000 people per year in traffic accidents and India kills 200,000. According to Cobee, what causes most of car accidents in India is bad visibility and awful brakes. Creating safer cars implied having much more expensive cars that people would not be able to buy, preferring used cars in bad shape instead. Ok, but how is it possible to avoid the consequences of a traffic crash? With cars that offer a better structure and with airbags. Something the Datsun GO does not offer. Check its crash test below:

It has not scored a single star in Global NCAP tests. Just like the Chevrolet Aveo.

Cobee has given an interview to Live Mint in which he maintains what he told me in 2013. “First, there is only one good type of crash. A good type of crash is that which does not happen. And if you want that to be a reality, then you want to ensure that your car delivers best braking performance, best visibility, best lighting at night, good suspension and good driver comfort. And guess what, that’s what Datsun Go is”, he states, only to conclude with this: “The reality of road safety in India is completely different from what we see in any other country”. But how different is it that it would not benefit from cars that offer more protection?

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Global NCAP has requested Nissan to take Datsun GO out of production until it receives a revised body. No airbags would solve the matter. And we have to admit this should also be the strategy the president of Latin NCAP should have followed concerning the Aveo. She has made a mistake by only demanding GM to fit the Aveo with airbags. Check its test at Latin NCAP below:

This car is so unsafe it should not be for sale at all. Rodriguez recognizes that this car, even fitted with four airbags, has only been able to achieve 2 stars in a crash test performed by Euro NCAP. The European watchdog reported that the “driver’s chest made contact with the steering wheel, distorting the rim”. Imagine how strong such a “contact” would have to be to bend the rim… According to Euro NCAP, the “compression of the driver’s chest indicated an unacceptable high risk of life-threatening injury”. With four airbags! See how similar the car’s body has behaved at the Euro NCAP in the video below.

Now compare it to the 2011 Aveo, also tested by Euro NCAP:

Did you see how the body of the car behaves? The cabin presents no distortions. Even if it did not have airbags, it would have performed better than its predecessor. This is what should be demanded in the first place: cars that are capable of preserving their cabins in crashes and sparing people’s lives. The Aveo sold in Mexico is a 2002 project, also known as T200, that still sells because all its development costs have already been paid off. In other words, shaving production costs off of each unit, all the rest is profit.

VW-Kombi

There is a long history of old car projects that have remained in production for decades. VW Kombi, the Typ 2 T2, has only had its production in Brazil halted two years ago due to a new law that demanded all vehicles sold or produced in the country to feature frontal airbags and ABS. It has been produced from 1967, when it was introduced in Germany, until 2014. Imagine how much money the 3.5 million units Volkswagen has sold along all these 47 years. The German company almost managed to get a law suspension in order to keep producing the van, but it did not work.

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The 1983 Fiat Uno was also killed by the same law in Brazil. In its 31 years, it has sold much more than the T2: 8.8 million units. Most modern car projects cost around US$ 1 billion. Each Fiat Uno must have cost around  US$ 10,000. Doing a pretty simple calculation, prone to mistakes, Uno alone could have generated a revenue of US$ 88 billion to Fiat. Take the Hindustan Ambassador, which was basically the same since 1958 and died in 2014. The 1981 Passat, still sold in China as the Santana. The Chevrolet Classic, nothing more than a second generation 1993 Opel Corsa in sedan guise. The Renault Clio II, a car that is pretty much the same since 1998 and that is still for sale. You may remember many other examples of old projects still sold as new cars. Although profitable, they are dangerous.

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These projects do not use ultra high strength steel in their bodies. Some of them have never heard of crumple zones, that absorb the energy of the impact, preserving the cabin. They still belong to a time when car crashes were deemed as a work of God, a mere fatality, even something natural. They are not. Nothing will resolve bad driving but drivers, but other measures can be taken other than traffic education in order to have less deaths and injuries in car accidents. And better cars are key to reach this goal. That’s difficult when even the same car has different specifications depending on the market.

The most famous story about such difference is the one presented by the Peugeot 206. Check below its test and scores at the Euro NCAP:

The 206 scored 4 stars in 2000. Now, compare the differences on cabin damages to the Peugeot 207, which is not the European, but a facelifted 206 for South America. It won’t be difficult.

With airbags, the car scored 2 stars. Without them, just 1. Peugeot had to make the 206 more resistant to the bad tarmac that is very often found in South America, but the changes apparently made it also unsafer. Why haven’t the changes taken safety into consideration?

In the end, a person is indeed a person, but, apart from Volvo, which has not patented seat belts so other automakers could fit them at no charge, it all comes down to cost. And price. A global safety standard would be perfect, but automakers do not want that in order not to increase costs. And their concern is not about offering affordable products or not: it is how much money each car will make. All pretense concerns with traffic deaths coming from manufacturers will remain an empty speech until something more substantial is done by them. And a mere hypocritical exercise.

In the mean time, do yourself a favour: only buy the safest car you can. Pay attention to independent crash tests. Check how well the car you intend to buy performs in them. Read safer cars lists, as the one we have created a while ago. Automakers only sell these death traps because there are people willing to buy them. And it is not intelligent nor wise to give money to the ones that deem your life disposable. After all, a person is a person, but some of us seem to matter more than others. Especially the ones that are able to pay more.

Gustavo Henrique Ruffo

I have been an automotive journalist since 1998 and have worked for many important Brazilian newspapers and magazines, such as the local edition of Car and Driver and Quatro Rodas, Brazilian's biggest car magazine. I have also worked for foreign websites, such as World Car Fans and won a few journalism prizes, among them three SAE Journalism Awards and the 2017 IAM RoadSmart Safety Award. I am the author of "The Traffic Cholesterol", a book about bad drivers that you can buy at Hotmart, Google Play, Amazon and Kobo.