A worker examines an air bag in a factory at Singaperumal Koil in Tamil Nadu, India. Many cars in South Africa do not have air bags - or have only one. Picture: Reuters
CONSUMER: It costs less than $200 (R2772) for an air bag, yet many vehicles on our roads lack these most basic safety features. These cars are so ­dangerous and non-compliant that they aren’t allowed to be sold in Western markets.

Laid bare, the statistics are sobering: children are twice as likely to die on a South African road as they are in Europe. Our 832431 crashes a year, which caused 14071 people to die last year, cost the local economy R142billion. Globally, 3500 people die daily in crashes - most of them in low- and middle-income countries.

Last year, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a road safety resolution recognising the importance of NCAPs (New Car Assessment Programmes) in improving vehicle safety standards.

The programme publishes safety reports on new cars, and awards “star ratings” based on performance in a variety of crash tests. The highest overall rating is five stars.

In accordance with the UN’s sustainability goals to reduce road deaths by 2020, the world body wants to see the NCAP programme rolled out across global markets. But inasmuch as governments and manufacturers are to blame for poor vehicle safety, consumers need to start demanding safer cars.

At Wednesday’s #SaferCarsForAfrica launch, co-hosted by the Global NCAP and Automobile Association in Cape Town, the first independent crash tests of five of our most popular small and compact ­vehicles were released.

Global NCAP, which campaigns for safer cars around the world, chose entry-level versions of each model, which include our best-selling car, the VW Polo Vivo, the Datsun Go+, Toyota Etios, Renault Sandero and the Chery QQ3, which together accounted for around 65% of new car sales last year.

The cars were crash-tested at 64km/* in a German facility, in consultation with the manufacturers on their recommended child restraint system.

And the results were startling. Only one car - the Etios, the second biggest seller last month - achieved a four-star safety rating for adults and three for child passengers in the back seat. It has two air bags and seat belt pre-tensioners, which tighten up slack in the belt during a crash to restrain occupants better. The Sandero and Vivo achieved three stars for adults, but the Renault proved to be the safest option for children, with four.

With a single air bag, the Go+ is an improvement on the original, which had none, but achieved one star for adult safety and two for children.

The Chinese-made Chery - which boasts the tag line “more car, more life” - failed outright, with a zero safety rating: lacking air bags, seat belt pre-tensioners, ABS and Isofix anchorages for child seats.

Protection offered to the driver’s head and chest was poor, the body shell rated as unstable and it was incapable of withstanding any further loadings. The footwell area ruptured. This despite the manufacturer’s claim that it produced “robust, reliable ­vehicles to ensure that you’re safe for the whole journey”.

Chery failed to recommend any child restraints for the test, so NCAP Global had used a popular brand of car seat, widely available in the South African market. But with no restraint system, the car seat couldn’t be properly attached to the seat.

Only the Etios and Sandero offer standard Isofix anchorages and a three-point seat belt for all passengers, which is essential for fitting a child seat.

The Chery’s safety rating was 0.06 points out of 17 for adults and 2 out of 49 for children.

David Ward, secretary-general of Global NCAP, said: “It is good to see a four-star result in these rst African crash test ratings, but disappointing there’s a zero-star car. Such a result shows why it is important to apply the UN crash test standards.

“The Chery would not pass the basic regulatory test, even at a lower speed level,” he warned. “A car like this shouldn’t be on sale anywhere in the world.

“Consumers need clear, comparative crash test information to help inform their car purchase decisions. This is why Global NCAP supports the introduction of mandatory crash test labelling for all new cars sold in South Africa.”

NCAP Global has identified a mixture of substandard cars in the local market, Ward said. “The fact major brands are ­doing this is quite shocking.”

In Brazil and India, NCAP Global has been successful in getting Renault to improve its Kwid from a zero rating for ­children in 2016.

“Renault reacted very quickly after the NCAP tests last year. The relaunched (2017) model has achieved three stars for both adults and children.

“Nissan pulled its zero-star Tsuru out of production in Mexico after we crashed the US equivalent, the five-star Versa, into it: the video quickly went viral and was one of the most watched on YouTube. We should not pay more for safety - there should be minimum safety levels.”

It’s a case of knowledge being power: consumers must be able to make informed decisions about their purchases. The AA says its own research indicates 80% of consumers say safety ratings would affect their purchase decisions.

Collins Khumalo, chief executive of the AA of South Africa, agreed safety features were not “nice to haves”: they are essential. The local market might be price-sensitive, but consumers want safer cars.

“These crash tests represent an important step in road safety in South Africa. We believe consumers have a right to know what the safety ratings are on the cars they want to buy. These results are critical to educating the public about vehicle safety, but, more than that, they empower road users to make informed decisions. In the same way emissions and green ratings are displayed on vehicles, we think safety ratings should also be displayed on vehicles, and we don’t believe this should be too much of a challenge to make happen.”

Saul Billingsley, the executive director of the FIA Foundation, which co-sponsored the tests in association with Bloomberg Philanthropy, said: “The range of results show that consumers have a real choice, and with access to the right information, they can use purchasing power to reward carmakers who put safety rst.

“If we are to reduce road traffic injuries in South Africa, and contribute to the overall UN development target of halving road deaths globally, safer cars for Africa must be a top priority.”

Vehicle safety also affects tourism and fleet safety guidelines need to be re-evaluated, Ward noted.

“It would be a great example if the car rental companies took a stand by providing safety-tested vehicles, and if hotels followed suit in terms of their guest transportation. Tourists come to our country and don’t question vehicle safety when they opt for car hire.”