Johannesburg - It seems like yesterday that crash testing became mandatory for all new vehicles sold in EU states, but this month the Euro NCAP organisation celebrates 20 years of star ratings - and the debates they have often sparked.
For instance: Should a car’s star rating reflect purely its ability to protect its occupants in a crash - or should the car’s electronic ability to avoid a crash in the first place give it a higher safety rating than the same model without the gizmotronics?
Not going there.
But now the AA has marked the occasion of Euro NCAP’s 20th anniversary by calling for a similar system to be instituted in South Africa - and for the resulting ratings to be prominently displayed on all vehicles sold new, on the showroom floor.
“Local consumers rarely have access to information on the safety ratings of the cars they are buying,” the AA asserted. “Thus it’s critical that it becomes mandatory for a sticker to be placed in the windscreen of a vehicle telling buyers what the safety rating of that vehicle is, just like the sticker displaying its emissions rating.”
Implementing a local safety ratings scale, it said - and displaying the results on every vehicle - would give buyers a better understanding of the safety of the vehicle they’re looking at, before they sign on the dotted line, and help them make more informed decisions.
How much would it actually help?
According to Euro NCAP more than 78 000 lives have been saved since crash safety tests were introduced 20 years ago this week, by crash testing more than 1800 cars and publishing more than 630 safety ratings.
But it’s not the star ratings that have saved lives - even the Eurocrats don’t pretend that many customers choose one car over another because it has more stars. Truth is, the star ratings have spurred the manufacturers to develop safer cars, by exposing weaknesses in their safety technology (such as the seat belts on the current Tesla Model S) and rewarding them for improving these mechanisms.
Safety kit such as airbags and seat-belt reminders, that were at best extra-cost options 20 years ago, as well as high tensile-strength steel cabin pillars, side impact beams and automatic fuel cut-off valves, are now standard even on the entry-level cars parents buy for their student children.
The Euro NCAP boffins now test many more aspects of car safety than they did in 1997, including pedestrian safety, and from 2018 they’ll be testing systems that recognise and avoid crashes with cyclists.
But South African roads are still among the deadliest in the world, and the AA says a key pillar of dealing with this is making sure motorists are driving safe vehicles, and the introduction of a safety ratings scale locally would be a step in the right direction.
EDITORIAL COMMENT BY DAVE ABRAHAMS
It’s not often that I take issue with the AA’s praiseworthy efforts to make South Africa’s roads safer, but in this case I feel it has got the wrong end of the stick. The global nature of the automotive industry (Ford’s flammable Kuga is made in Spain and was awarded five stars in Euro NCAP testing) means that there are very few uniquely South African vehicles - even those cars that are built in this country are usually also exported.
Thus almost every model on a South African showroom floor has already been crashed tested by one of the major NCAP centres and already has an applicable star rating. While I would support the compulsory display of these rating on cars in showrooms, I don’t see why the SABS should be obligated to repeat them, at huge cost to the taxpayer - if that is in fact what the AA is advocating.
That money could be better spent, I feel, on compulsory roadworthy re-testing of all new vehicles after five years, eight years, 10 years and every year after that - because the skedonks we see on the roads every day are a far greater danger to their occupants and other road users than any new car could ever be.