Three of the cars on sale in SA that were crash tested, left to right: Datsun Go+, Toyota Etios and Chery QQ3. Picture: MARK SMYTH
Three of the cars on sale in SA that were crash tested, left to right: Datsun Go+, Toyota Etios and Chery QQ3. Picture: MARK SMYTH

Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said that "if you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

Saul Billingsley, executive director at the FIA Foundation, alluded to this on Wednesday when he said car makers "have to decide if they are on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed".

Billingsley was referring to the idea that those unable to afford cars with adequate levels of safety are the oppressed, and the car companies that put profit before safety are the oppressors.

"There are real inequalities in this road safety business," he says.

"Manufacturers have the attitude that these people (those in poorer communities) don’t matter."

Affordability is definitely being put ahead of safety — not only by some companies in the automotive industry but also by motorists themselves.

In spite of heavy criticism around the world, Nissan sold 728 examples of its Datsun Go and Go+ in SA last month alone. Its equally unsafe sibling, built on the same platform, the Renault Kwid, sold 511 last month.

These cars are on sale in spite of the fact that more than 14,000 people die on our roads every year, a figure that should be declining as part of the South African government’s role as a signatory to the United Nations Decade of Action on Road Safety.

"The statistics indicate a very serious problem on our roads," says Collins Khumalo, CEO of the Automobile Association of SA. He says there are more than 800,000 crashes on SA’s roads every year, costing the economy more than R142bn. That equates to 3.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) — yet it does not get anywhere near the level of attention that industries making similar contributions to GDP receive.

Khumalo is quick to point out, though, that solutions "are not the sole responsibility of government", adding that "road safety needs to be a priority" for everyone.

This is especially true when you consider the nation’s children. Statistically a child is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in SA than in most other parts of the world.

Research conducted by the AA finds consumers want more safety in their vehicles. Khumalo says people are price-sensitive but they would like to see safer vehicles, with 93.21% saying there should be a minimum safety standard and 93.81% saying a safety standard should be displayed on a car at the point of sale.

For five cars available in SA, that will now be possible after the AA teamed up with worldwide vehicle safety organisation Global NCAP to test the safety standard of five of the most popular models in the country.

The test was an international standard test with each vehicle crashed into a deformable barrier at a 40% offset front angle and a speed of 64km/h. Four crash test dummies were inside, two adults at the front and two children, both strapped into age-appropriate child seats.

The highest score was achieved by a Toyota Etios, equipped with two front airbags, which achieved four stars in adult occupant protection and three stars for child protection.

The Renault Sandero scored three stars and four stars for child protection, while the Volkswagen Polo Vivo achieved three stars in each category.

The organisation did not test the regular Datsun Go hatchback as SA gets the same vehicle as the one that failed the crash tests in India. However, it did test the Go+, a larger version on the same platform. It scored one and two stars respectively, mainly because of additional strengthening of the driver’s-side A-pillar to support the inclusion of a single airbag.

But David Ward, secretary-general of Global NCAP, stressed that Datsun "have done just enough to pass the basic test".

The final car tested was the Chinese Chery QQ3. It failed the test completely, receiving zero stars in both categories. Not only did the body structure collapse but, without any airbags, the dummy’s head hit the steering wheel and actually broke the rim.

Global NCAP and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have called for a worldwide ban on zero-star cars.

Ward points out that with the increase in global vehicle platforms, the economies of scale mean safety should be even cheaper than ever.

He says some automotive industry associations have a tendency to exaggerate the costs, but that basic safety equipment and strengthening can cost as little as $200.

With the first tests done, the hope is that more vehicles sold on South African roads will also undergo crash tests and that the government will legislate for the minimum standards that it is actually a signatory to.

Ward suggests that with the Safer Cars for Africa campaign, SA is in a position to become a vehicle safety testing hub for the region or even the continent. He says this opens up big opportunities or testing, training, employment and investment, if handled correctly.

Perhaps this is the carrot the government needs to in order to start waving a stick when it comes to road safety.

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