Road deaths in Latin America: Safety second

The macho approach to air bags is fading

DELEGATES at the world conference on road safety in Brasília in November had a chance to try out the latest devices, such as automatic emergency braking systems. Outside the conference venue, they would have had a hard time finding such lifesavers. Latin America’s transport regulators are at least a decade behind those of developed countries in mandating safety equipment for cars. But they are making progress.

The death rate on the region’s roads is high: the safest Latin American countries are three times more dangerous than Switzerland. But drivers have little interest in safer cars, and sellers lobby governments not to require them. For consumers newly promoted to the middle class, airbags and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) seem like luxuries. Cars equipped with such devices typically come with fripperies like sunroofs and leather seats. In Mexico, a Chevrolet Aveo with front-seat airbags costs $3,000 more than a pared-down version, the country’s bestselling car. That model recently had the lowest possible score in a crash test conducted by Latin NCAP, a group that promotes car safety.

Manufacturers and importers exert “enormous pressure” on regulators to avoid having to install additional safety features, says Alejandro Furas of Latin NCAP. They claim that devices such as airbags and ABS would push up the price of an entry-level car by $2,000 on average. Such arguments carry weight with regulators. Mexico, the world’s fourth-largest exporter of cars and parts (mainly to the safety-conscious United States and Europe) does not even require seatbelts and child restraints in cars sold domestically.

Although seatbelts are the most effective safety devices, newer ones also save lives. Front-seat airbags reduce the odds of dying in a potentially fatal crash by 11% when a passenger is wearing a seatbelt and by 14% when he or she is not, according to the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. ABS have a mixed record: they increase the number of cars that run off the road but reduce collisions with pedestrians. In conjunction with electronic stability control, a newer-fangled technology, ABS should reduce fatal crashes by 15%.

Latin American regulators are overcoming resistance to higher standards. In Brazil, double airbags and ABS have been mandatory in new cars since 2014 (see chart). Uruguay started to implement the same requirement last year. There extra equipment raised the average price of a car by just $300, far less than manufacturers warned. Colombia had planned more ambitious requirements, including electronic stability control, but retreated under pressure from the industry. In October its transport ministry issued a more modest requirement: from 2017 new cars will have to be equipped with airbags, ABS and headrests (to protect against whiplash).

The new rules leave plenty of wriggle-room. They are merely a framework, and do not set down technical specifications, points out Oliverio García, of Colombia’s car importers’ association. Headrests will be mandatory, but “Can they be made of polystyrene?” he wonders. Car safety in Latin America still has a long way to go.

The Economist |

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