Research by the Automobile Association of SA (AA) reveals that 87.86% of those surveyed say a safety rating would help then decide on which car to buy.

SA has no safety ratings programme, unlike the ones in the US, Europe, Latin America, China and India.

If safety is one of your priorities then the testing of five entry-level vehicles by Global NCAP will be of major interest.

If safety is not important to you then it should be. Daily we see people not wearing seatbelts and children not in proper child seats. It is scary how people seemingly couldn’t care less about their own safety and that of children. Statistically a child is twice as likely to be killed on the roads in SA than in most other parts of the world.

According to AA CEO Collins Khumalo there are about 832,431 crashes on our roads every year, resulting in more than 14,000 deaths and countless serious injuries. "The statistics indicate a serious problem on our roads," says Khumalo.

Road crashes cost the economy more than R142bn. That equates to 3.4% of GDP yet it does not get anywhere near the level of attention that industries making similar percentage contributions to GDP receive.

Safety is about buying the safest car you can afford. You might only have R100,000 to spend, but that new car smell will not save your life, whereas buying the safest pre-owned car at that price might.

If you are buying new in the entry-level market though, then the results of the AA and Global NCAP’s first crash tests of cars on sale in SA make for fascinating reading. They also show a big difference between how some car makers perceive the need to provide safer vehicles in SA and Africa.

"There are real inequalities in this road safety business," says Saul Billingsley, executive director at the FIA Foundation. Manufacturers have the attitude that people in poorer communities don’t matter, he says.

The results of GlobalNCAP’s first crash tests of cars sold in SA. Picture: MARK SMYTH
The results of GlobalNCAP’s first crash tests of cars sold in SA. Picture: MARK SMYTH

Affordability is put ahead of safety by not just 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 in October alone. Its equally unsafe sibling, built on the same platform, the Renault Kwid, sold 511 in October.

Renault has made the Kwid much safer in Brazil where it achieved a three-star crash test rating. Renault made the decision to make it safer after overwhelming pressure by consumers who did not want to be in such an unsafe car. SA gets its Kwid from India where safety enhancements have not been made and Renault SA allows the situation of profit before people to continue.

Research in SA by the AA shows that 93.21% of those asked say there should be a minimum safety standard.

It is the role of government to legislate that standard. It is the role of manufacturers to meet the standard and it is the role of consumers to place a higher priority on safety.

That role is now slightly easier 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 SA.

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

The final car tested was the Chinese Chery QQ3. It totally failed the test, 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 broke the rim.

Global NCAP and UN 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 cheaper. Some automotive industry associations have a tendency to exaggerate the costs, he says, 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 SA’s roads will also undergo crash tests and the government will legislate for the minimum standards that it is actually a signatory to as part of its commitment to the UN Decade of Action on Road Safety.

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. This opens up big opportunities if handled correctly for testing, training, employment and investment, he says.

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

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