Last week we had a horrific pile up on the near Sta Maria Bay that left four dead and many more injured when a car sailed over the center divider after losing a wheel. The following day two cars collided on the highway, killing one. What is going on here?
A combination of many things, some easy to fix, some not so. Easy to fix are enforcement of the seatbelt laws. Also easy to fix are enforcement of the speeding laws. A somewhat easy fix is getting unsafe vehicles off the roads. Less easy to fix are the substandard cars being manufactured. So substandard are they, that they can’t even be imported into the United States because they can’t pass basic safety laws.
There is a video going around YouTube that shows two cars crashing head on at 35 miles per hour. One car is red, one is silver. The red car crumples like an accordion. The dummy's face collides with the steering wheel as glass flies everywhere. The entire front of the cabin collapses in, pushing the dummy's knees up and crushing them against the dashboard.
The front of the silver car is also crushed. But the frame of the car is relatively intact. This dummy flies forward in the , but front and side airbags soften the blow. The windshield cracks, but doesn't shatter.
They're both Nissan cars but the red car is a 2015 Tsuru, manufactured for sale in Mexico. The silver one is a 2016 Versa, made for the U.S. market. Both are at the bottom of the line for price point. But there are crucial differences. Unlike the American Nissan, the Mexican model has no air bags, no brakes or stability control to adjust tire speed and prevent skidding.
On crash safety tests run by the nonprofit Latin New Car Assessment Program, the Versa gets four out of five stars. The Tsuru gets zero.
Nissan isn't the only car maker with different safety options for different markets. A 2017 Chevrolet Spark sold in the U.S. comes with ten airbags. The same version sold in Mexico doesn't come with any airbags, and like the Tsuru, it scored zero stars in crash tests.
Hyundai, Nissan, Renault, Suzuki, Datsun, Ford, Fiat, Kia, Volkswagen and others have all sold zero star cars in middle and low income countries around the world. Many of the vehicles in question lack basic safety features that have been mandatory in the U.S. and European Union for almost two decades.
In 2015 only 27 percent of countries used the U.N regulations aimed at protecting drivers and passengers from front impact crashes. Only 26 percent applied the regulations for side-impact crashes.
A manufacturer will spend about $50 per airbag, according to Alejandro Furas, the Secretary General of Latin NCAP. so that's not a huge price jump. But in many countries airbags are part of a so called luxury package that also include leather seats and better speakers. If Mexican consumers want to purchase a Chevrolet Spark with airbags, they need to shell out an additional $2,000 for the deluxe LTZ model, which comes with two airbags, one for the driver and one for the passenger.
There are signs of progress. Argentina and Brazil made airbags mandatory in 2014. Mexico just wrote new automobile safety standards to curb the sale of unsafe vehicles. But the new rules are vague. While they specify that cars need to protect the passenger in front and side collisions, they don't specify how, so it's up to the manufacturers to decide. And section 6.4 of the regulations says that manufacturers can conduct their own vehicle safety tests — and if the tests meet certain requirements they'll be considered valid forever, regardless of what other crash testers might find. Furthermore, Mexico has until 2020 to comply with these pretty lax new regulations, supposedly to give manufacturers time to alter their fleets. But many Mexican cars are manufactured at local factories that already produce safer vehicles for export. The U.S. version of the Nissan Versa, for example, is manufactured in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and comes with Nissan's "advanced airbag system" that includes side-curtain airbags that drop down and keep passengers from hitting the side of the car, and supplemental airbags. The baseline Mexican version, manufactured at the same facility, comes with the option of two airbags.
Some manufacturers are already taking steps to improve their made-for Mexico cars. The same day Latin NCAP announced their intention to crash-test the Tsuru, Nissan announced that it would stop selling the cars in May of 2017.
A spokesman at GM Mexico has promised its cars will meet minimum safety standards by 2019, and that "front dual airbags and three-point seat belts in all seating positions [will be] standard" on eight models by 2018.
Although safer cars will soon be manufactured, it will take many years to phase all the killer cars off the roads. Until then, drive extra carefully.