Auto apartheid rules in Mexico

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 MEXICO’S DEATH-TRAP CARS: According to Latin NCAP safety ratings, the Nissan Tsuru scores a 1/17 for adult safety and a disgusting 0/49 for child occupants. Image: LATIN NCAP ~ Supplied
RAMOS ARIZPE, Mexico - In Mexico's booming vehicle industry, cars rolling off assembly lines may appear identical but how safe they are depends on where they're headed.

Those destined to stay in Mexico or headed for South America carry a code signifying there's no need for anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control or more than two air bags (if any) in its basic models.

Engineers who have worked in Mexico-based factories report that vehicles exported to the US or Europe, must meet stringent safety laws, including as many as 10 air bags and stability controls that compensate for slippery roads and other road dangers.


Since the price of the vehicles is roughly the same, in dollar terms, in all those places, the double-standard supports the bottom lines of automakers such as General Motors and Nissan. The system however is being blamed for a surge in vehicle related fatalities in Mexico, where laws require virtually no such safety protections.

Technical director for the Global New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), Alejandro Furas, said: "Something is very wrong. We are paying for cars that are far more expensive and far less safe."

Nearly 5000 drivers and passengers were killed in Mexico in 2011, an almost 60% increase since 2001. In the same period, vehicle-related fatalities decreased by 40% in the USA. The death rate in Mexico, when comparing fatalities with the size of a car fleet, is more than 3.5 times that of the US.

Despite this, Mexico hasn't introduced any safety proposals other than general seat belt requirements for its 22-million vehicles. Even then the laws don't mandate three-point shoulder belts necessary to secure child safety seats - belly belts will do.

Earlier in 2013, Wheels24 reported that Brazil and Argentina passed laws requiring all vehicles to have dual front air bags and anti-lock brakes by 2014.

An Associated Press investigation in 2013 found that Brazil's vehicle plants produced cars aimed at South American consumers that lacked basic safety features. Like Brazil, Mexico doesn't run its own crash test facility to rank cars' safety before they hit the road.

Director of the Mexican health ministry's national accident prevention council, Arturo Cervantes Trejo, said the country had a long way to go to upgrade safety standards but challenging the nation's R306-billion auto industry could be difficult.


Cervantes said: "It's a complicated subject because of the amount of money automakers bring to this country. The economy protects them but there are plans, there is a strategy. We have a working group with the car industry."

Vehicle factories cover a swathe of central Mexico, cranking out three-million cars a year. In a matter of a few years, Mexico has become the world's fourth-largest vehicle exporter, despite having no local brands. The country's car fleet doubled from 2001 to  2011, the latest national figures show.

In fact, consumers in First World countries are paying the same or even less for safer cars.

For example, basic versions of Mexico's second most popular car, the Nissan Versa, made in central Aguascalientes, comes with two air bags but without electronic stability control which uses sensors to activate brakes when a car loses control.

The sticker price of the newer generation of the sedan comes to the equivalent of R160 000. The US version of the same car has six air bags (front, sides and curtain) in addition to an electronic stability control system. That sticker price is about R140 000.


Similarly, the basic version of the Chevrolet Aveo, renamed Sonic, sells for about R140 000 in the US and comes with 10 air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. Its Mexican equivalent, the country's top-selling car, doesn't have any of those protections and costs only R4000 less.

Nissan Mexico spokesman Herman Morfin said it was "common practice" to add different features, depending on the intended market.

"There are many choices of specifications and equipment. Specific marketing strategies by country, in addition to the tax difference among countries, states and cities, also including transportation and delivery costs, it's not possible to make a direct comparison among vehicles sold in each market, based on the list price published."

Morfin said two of Nissan's most popular models, the Versa and the Sentra, were packaged with two air bags and anti-lock brakes, more than is required by the Mexican government.

GM declined repeated requests to comment but an engineer who headed a manufacturing division at the company in Mexico until 2013 said the company saved on costs by not adding safety features.


The engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "For the company to make more net profit and so that cars are sold at more affordable prices, we would toss aside some accessories. Air bags, ABS brakes, those were the first to go."

Three other engineers who worked with Nissan and GM for four years and are still involved in auto design for other automakers were interviewed on similar conditions of anonymity, and they confirmed the companies built cars with vastly different safety features depending on where they'd be sold.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said air bags and electronic stability control had prevented tens of thousands of injuries in auto collisions and reduced fatal crashes by as much as a third in the US.

Paco de Anda, director of the Mexican chapter for the accident-prevention group Safe Kids, said Latin American consumers had to pay extra for those protections. "Features  mandatory in other countries, here they are selling them as optional items. People here have no education about road safety... so they don't pay for it."

A GM worker who gets paid the equivalent of R1000 a week said people in Latin America could not afford cars fully loaded with safety features.


Yet crash test results show exactly what's being sacrificed for savings. One of Nissan's most popular models in Mexico, the Tsuru, is so outdated that it has only lap seat-belts in the rear and some versions have no air bags.

The car is not sold in the US or Europe.

At a recent Latin NCAP crash test presentation, a Tsuru's driver's door ripped off upon impact at only 60km/h. Its roof collapsed and the steering wheel slammed against the crash test dummy's chest. The Tsuru scored zero stars out of a possible five.

When asked about the crash test, Nissan representatives replied in an email that "consumers continue to ask for it because of its durability, reliability and affordability" without responding specifically to the test results.

More than 300 000 Tsurus have been sold in Mexico in the past six years at about R100 000 each.

Carlos Gomez and his wife Diana Martinez were driving their two small children in a red Tsuru from the northern Mexican town of Doctor Arroyo across the length of Mexico to Chiapas state for Holy Week holidays in March. They were hit head-on by a drunk driver in a Ford Ranger bakkie.

The couple died from chest and head injuries; the steering wheel struck Gomez's chest and the dashboard crushed his wife's head. The children survived but spent weeks in hospital. Six-year-old Carlos still wears a cast from the waist down and is paralysed.

The family said the investigation didn't determine whether air bags would have saved the parents' lives but there was an air bag in the truck that struck them. The driver was not injured.

Furas, of Global NCAP, said changing automakers' behaviour would require the region's few watchdog groups, and especially government regulators, to apply far more pressure on automakers.

VW, for one, began adding two air bags to its Clasico model after the automaker learned that Latin NCAP was going to choose the car for crash testing because of its popularity, Furas said. The model. when sold in Europe and the US as Jetta, comes standard with six air bags.

Furas said: "Mexico has to take a good look at itself, at the problems it's facing. It is selling unsafe cars to its own people, when it can be selling safe cars that it can build."

None of the unsafe cars is sold in South Africa.