South Africa’s outdated car safety regulations have surfaced after a horrific crash test suggests cars in South Africa lack basic features that have been common for decades in many developed countries. In fact, 25 years of life-saving technology has been fitted in mass produced cars but it is still not compulsory in South Africa
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, after viewing the remains of the two vehicles at a road-safety conference in Stockholm, Sweden, insisted South Africa follows world class safety standards. But experts said the test contradicted Mabalula’s confidence, and that South Africa’s regulations lag far behind.
For example, the EU made electronic stability control (ESC) compulsory in 2009 but local regulations for new cars still required just seatbelts, lights, mirrors and brakes. Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have been compulsory in Europe since 2004, and dual front airbags have been mandatory in the US since 1998 but South Africa still does not require either as standard fitment.
The Automobile Association of South Africa (AA) said most South African consumers did not prioritise safety features when shopping for a car. “We’ d like to see consumers demanding better safety features in their cars, before Bluetooth, fancy mags and impressive speakers,” said spokesperson Layton Beard.
The test conducted in Germany last year by the car safety organisation Global New Car Assessment Programme (Global NCAP) involved a head on 56km/h collision between a brand-new Nissan NP300 Hardbody from South Africa and a five year old version of the vehicle sold in the UK. Global NCAP said the driver of the UK vehicle would have probably walked away, while the driver of the South African bakkie would most likely have died.
Mbalula said there was no evidence that lax local car safety regulations allowed manufacturers to sell death trap vehicles in South Africa. “We are confident that our safety standards and processes put in place by the department of trade and industry are world class and can withstand scrutiny,” he believed.
Willem Groenewald, CEO of the AA, said the Global NCAP crash test belied Mbalula’s confidence. “What this car-to-car crash demonstrates is a complete disdain for African motorists for the sake of profit,” he said. “It also again highlights the need for stricter regulation of standards and tougher controls in terms of allowing these inferior vehicles onto African roads.”
Durban accident reconstruction specialist Craig Proctor-Parker said some vehicles produced for the South African market cost accident victims their lives. “They are of a lower standard, and this discrepancy costs lives, there is no question about that,” he said. “There is less structural support in key areas and less attention given to aspects of structural integrity. The reason is that using this outdated building process takes less time and less material, and the result is that it is less safe.”
Nissan said in a statement: “The locally produced NP300 Hardbody meets all safety regulations within Africa, where it has built a strong reputation over many years for reliability and customer satisfaction.”
The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS), which falls under the trade industry department, sets the safety bar for new cars sold in South Africa and Mbalula said he had “full confidence” in its “particular emphasis on safety-critical characteristics of the vehicle and its components. “The NRCS said it was in talks with the motor industry to tighten up regulations.
The NRCS is aware that our national requirements are still lagging behind, we are not on par with all UN regulations as a developing country. However, efforts are being made to address these regulatory gaps,” the regulator said. “The amended compulsory requirements will make requirements for ABS, AEBS (advanced emergency braking system), ESC, front impact (head-on collision) side impact, prevention of fire risks, front and rear protective devices (bumpers) and levels of emissions mandatory. Various other requirements will also be included as part of this process,” the statement said.
“European standards have nothing to do with the South African market. It may be that the safety standards are low in South Africa, but that is the law. A car that gets a five-star Euro NCAP rating may very well not be the same car sold in South Africa,” said Beard. “We would like to see the manufacturers beating down the AA’s door, as Global NCAP’s partner, to offer us vehicles to be crash tested (in Germany) so that their safety can be verified for the local market.”
Global NCAPS’s vice-president for technological affairs, Alejandro Furas, said some manufacturers were pursuing “very old technology in cars they sell in developing countries. It’s up to us to tell consumers how unsafe they are, because the manufacturers certainly won’t.” Global NCAP goes on to say that no vehicle should be sold anywhere without ESC, along with front and side airbags.
Consumer protection lawyer Trudie Broekman said a variance in safety standards was a message that European lives were more valuable than those of South Africans and that “manufacturers have to balance quality and profitability. That said it should be in the interests of the manufacturer to ensure that its product is not defective, unsafe or hazardous,” she said.
According to Global NCAP, the base model Hyundai i20 sells in Europe with ESC and six airbags – while the South African version has just two airbags and no ESC, yet costs more.
Similarly, the European Toyota Yaris has ESC and seven airbags, while the local version’s base model has just two airbags and no ESC.
The i20 and Yaris each sold 439 units in South Africa in January 2020. VW’s Polo Vivo, SA’s top selling car with 2 811 sales in January has two airbags and no ESC.
Volkswagen South Africa which produces the Polo for domestic and export markets, said ESC is standard in the base model in South Africa, Australia, the UK and Poland. Six airbags are standard in the local car, while export models have “up to six”. The cheaper Polo Vivo, South Africa’s top-selling car has two airbags and no ESC.
Hyundai said it imports its vehicles with “varying levels of safety” specifications. Hyundai sells cars in South Africa with a minimum safety specification of driver and front-passenger airbag and an advanced braking system.”
Toyota said it enhances safety with each model upgrade “Whereas the launch model for the Corolla Quest, had no ESC and just two airbags, the 2020 model has ESC and the addition of a driver’s knee airbag.”
Nissan South Africa said the NP300 Hardbody was committed to the highest safety standards in every market. “The locally produced NP300 Hardbody meets all safety regulations within Africa.”
Isuzu said it vehicles have varying safety standards, “Specification levels vary by model and according to the regulations of the markets and the requirements of the customers.”
Audi said passive safety measures such as a car’s body material, airbags and equipment are built in as standard. “Active systems like driver assistance features, are the only systems that will change in the different markets.”
Ford said all domestic models have a Euro NCAP, Latin NCAP or Australian NCAP rating of four stars and above.
By Wendy Knowler and Jeff Wicks