Photo: Euro NCAP

This article was first published in the 1st quarter 2017 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

Entry-level car safety is an old hobbyhorse of mine – I need not refer to Automobile Association (AA) reports or any other resource before voicing an opinion. In fact, I have spoken about it so often that friends and family tend to invent urgent appointments to avoid hearing me sound off on the subject yet again.

Whence my obsession with safety? Let’s pause for a harmless science lesson – Newton’s Laws of Motion in particular. When a 2 000kg car travelling at the urban speed limit of 60km/h (or 16.7 metres a second)

crashes into an immovable concrete wall, it’s subject to the same deceleration force as if you had dropped the car onto its nose from a height of 14.2 metres. Increase the speed to 90km/h (that’s 30km/h slower than our highway speed limit) and the sudden deceleration escalates to the equivalent of a 32-metre fall (about the height of a 10-storey building), because the car’s stored kinetic energy increases by the square of the impact velocity. Factor in the speed of an oncoming vehicle and the numbers are downright terrifying.

Now think about what happens to the frail human body in a car accident. In the event of a serious crash, the car’s occupants decelerate rapidly, experiencing huge forces that would inevitably result in injury or death were it not for safety features – such as seat belts, air-bags and crumple zones (areas of a vehicle designed to crush in a controlled manner) – that help to slow their deceleration and dissipate some of the kinetic energy.

In fact, their role in slowing the deceleration of the car’s occupants by even a few tenths of a second dramatically reduces the force acting on them and the likelihood of serious injury. (And there are still people who refuse to wear seat belts.)

Comparing standards

A recent study by the AA concludes that the depreciation of the rand and increases in the cost of commodities have forced many South Africans to make price a priority when they buy necessities, including motor vehicles (“still the most dependable form of transport in South Africa”). The South African “Entry-level” Vehicle Safety Report, published in September, cites two key factors that affect purchase decisions: affordability and safety.

In comparing the standards of safety equipment in entry-level vehicles, the AA set a price limit of R150 000. Most expensive in the line-up was the Chery J2 1.5TX, at R149 995, with the cheapest option, the Geely GC2, coming in at a modest R92 990. Vehicle pricing and safety features were collected from dealership brochures and were correct on August 31, 2016.

For the purposes of its report, the AA examined each vehicle for what it regards as the “minimum” active and passive safety features. These include:

• An anti-lock braking system (ABS), which prevents a car’s wheels from locking when the driver applies the brakes, and allows the driver to steer while braking;

• Airbags (driver, passenger, side and curtain) – a supplementary restraint system that provides inflatable cushions to protect the driver and passengers in a crash; and

• Electronic stability control (ESC), a system that detects if the driver’s steering inputs are inconsistent with a vehicle’s direction of travel and applies the brakes appropriately to prevent the wheels from slipping and keeps the vehicle under control in hazardous conditions.

A perfect score of 135 points was theoretically achievable if a car had all the safety features installed. For example, the AA’s weighting provided 30 points each for ABS and ESC (no score if these features were absent), 10 points for a driver’s airbag and 25 points for a Euro NCAP (European New Car Assessment Programme) crash-test rating of the maximum five stars. An extra 10 points were awarded for curtain airbags, because, according to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States, these reduce life-threatening head injuries by up to 50 percent.

In addition to the weighting and points allocation, the AA created a “safety/affordability” index whereby the highest achievable score was nine, calculated with the maximum score of 135 for safety and a R150 000 vehicle price. Says the AA: “This index allows us to draw a comparison of the safety features one can buy in terms of every R10 000 spent.”

Of the 23 cars under consideration, the AA says, only one model, the Citroën C1, had all the safety features installed as standard. “The only loss of points was due to the C1 being granted only four out of five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests. It’s worth noting, however, that it was also the only vehicle to have undergone Euro NCAP testing and to be sold on the South African market with the same safety specifications as tested.”

In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that the Citroën C1 wasn’t actually crash-tested by Euro NCAP. However, because it’s structurally identical to the Toyota Aygo, the organisation believes the star rating for the Aygo can be applied to the Citroën. Two versions of the Aygo are available in South Africa, both of them equipped with four airbags and ABS as standard. However, the starting price of R157 000 puts both models outside the ambit of the AA study.

If all this leaves you a little bewildered, you’re advised to use the AA report as a guide to what it calls the “affordability of safety” proposition. In this context, a score of four points and above can be regarded as “acceptable” safety, a score between three and 3.99 points ranks as “moderate”, and 2.99 points or below can be seen as “poor”. As shown in the table, four vehicles are ranked “acceptable” in terms of safety, eight cars rank as “moderate” and 11 vehicles score a “poor”.

As part of its study, the AA examined the standard specification level of each vehicle, finding that in several cases cars were fitted with “convenience” or “luxury” features while offering low levels of safety equipment. It’s a good point: the Tata Indica, for example, comes with useful aircon, but rates a distinct “poor” in the AA’s safety/affordability index.

Another significant discovery was that seven of the 23 vehicles under consideration had none of the identified safety features installed. These were the Geely GC2, Chery QQ3 0.8 TE, Datsun Go 1.2 Mid, Chery QQ 0.8TX, Tata Indica LE AC, Tata Indica LGI Sport and Tata Vista Ini Bounce.

Look, I get it: whereas you might like to acquire new wheels equipped with ABS, ESC, lots of airbags and the very latest in crumple-zone technology, this level of safety equipment might push the price beyond your budget. Assuming you are facing this dilemma right now, is there a solution in terms of a bare minimum? Yes. Two air-bags (for the driver and front-seat passenger) would be a good start. You get them in the very affordable Chery QQ 1.1 TXE (R114 995), but for the same price the FAW V2 1.3 DLX has two air-bags plus ABS. If you’re not too concerned about Euro NCAP testing, you might opt for the Renault Sandero 66kW Turbo Expression at R147 900. Like the Citroën C1, it offers ABS, ESC and airbags for the driver and front-seat passenger (but no curtain airbags).

The AA comments: “We are hopeful that this report will inform the public and persuade motor manufacturers to prioritise safety in vehicles produced for the South African market. In particular, we call upon motor manufacturers to consider substituting luxury or convenience specification items with safety items. We believe this consideration must be weighed against the inexperience of the typical drivers of these vehicles and the need to protect them against traffic hazards to the greatest extent possible.”

Amen to that.

Alan Duggan is a freelance journalist and former editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.