A good car to have a crash in…? Part 1

9 Feb

Fancy a good car crash? Oh, come on, don’t be a chicken. Let’s do it. Its fun…!

About twenty years ago the German Police were  mystified by a sudden spate of random accidents involving stolen cars. Something was not quite right. Something did not make sense. At the crash scene, the lack of tyre marks that would indicate that the driver was braking, the direct angle of impact, small details like these were not as they expected.

It is beyond the comprehension of most of us to intentionally crash the car we are driving into a stationary object. Yes, a few crooks do intentionally crash cars to claim thousands of pounds in insured injury pay-outs, but they are the exception; they are doing it for business reasons.

What the German Police discovered was that a handful of streetwise teenagers were crashing cars for fun. The incredible adrenaline buzz of doing it, the excitement of the unknown…the whiff of gunpowder as the airbags go off and the near –  certainty of running away, high on life, to laugh about it with their mates.

One of the great things about youth is that it draws together the established world it sees and makes of it a new world. These kids had seen the promotional videos for Volvos, Audis and Mercedes. How the calm voice of the manufacturers explained in patient words that these “airbags” would deploy and save the occupants from serious injury in the event of a crash at even 50 kilometers per hour.

Game on…!  One can picture the face of  the staid and methodical German Police detective at the moment where he finally thought the previously unthinkable, imagined the hitherto unimaginable. He was first on the scene at a completely new category of crime: “crashing cars intentionally for the joy of cheating death and serious injury”.

Years later, when the idea had become boring and uncool, even Jeremy Clarkson did it on Top Gear.

In Europe and America, car manufacturers now use the idea of passenger safety as a sales tool, a means of selling their cars to us. It was not always so.

When Ralph Nader, an American pioneer of consumer rights, published a book in 1965 criticising American car manufacturers for designing cars that killed their occupants because they were poorly  designed, he singled out the General Motors Chevrolet Corvair. General Motors responded by singling out Ralph Nader as an untrustworthy commie beatnik with a dangerously un-American agenda.

Nader was right. This new concept of ‘passenger safety’ became forever more  of great importance to western car-buyers.  Nader and his cause flourished while General Motors were shamed into a mumbling apology and ‘getting with the program’. Swedish manufacturer Volvo invented  the three-way diagonal seat belt and, in an act of high-principled generosity, offered it patent-free to all the world’s motor manufacturers, their competition. It immediately became the now-familiar seat belt that we all still wear, albeit in improved form.

Today, when we westerners buy a car, we ask ourselves: “How safe is it?”  This is an interesting point because forty years ago in 1970, we still asked “How sexy will I look and how fast does it go?”  The manufacturers were happy to answer. They were still working hard on developing safety equipment. It was a long, uphill research programme so, in the mean time, hey – look…! Sports Wheels…! Extra Stripes…! Metallic Paint…! Cheap, shiny things. Go on, have a couple of front fog lights, as well. They are totally useless in fog but your neighbour will be jealous and that is what counts, isn’t it?

Even though we knew that safety was important in 1970, we still wanted our cars to be symbols of sexual prowess and have a little of the ‘weapon’ about them. Yes, women too – it was not exclusively men who lusted after power and sex-appeal back then and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise…

But by 1990, twenty years ago, passenger safety had become the most-used sales tool for western manufacturers and the most talked-over issue when choosing a new car. Safe sex. We westerners still wanted to look like gods in chariots of steel on the outside but please, can we have lots of soft,  curvy plastic bits on the inside instead of all those pointy steel knobs and handles?

Western manufacturers saw their golden opportunity. They stopped talking about how fast their cars went. They talked instead about how safe, economical and trustworthy they were. Cars stopped being sold to us as powerful rocket ships and  began being sold to us as powerful accountants, trustworthy and silent bodyguards, loyal friends.

Now, in 2012, those German teenagers have settled down, had kids and they probably have an Audi A3 parked outside.  Airbag safety and passenger-cell technology is far more advanced. Every day on western roads, men and women walk away from crashes that would have killed them without doubt in 1972, just one generation earlier.

Now, take a look at India in 2012. The Indian economy is racing forward, a well-heeled consumer class is emerging and is hungry for new products. Once again, the car is being pushed like a drug as the ‘must have’ consumer item for the modern Indian family. Just as we westerners were encouraged to take to the roads, spend our money on fuel, tax, insurance, servicing, repairs, depreciation and, oh yes, a shiny new car, so the easterners are being willingly courted by the huge car manufacturers. Now, it is their turn to be dazzled by choice.

But something is not right.

While the wealthy elite of India are rushing to buy luxury cars so fast that America’s top imported brands are increasing sales at an astonishing 40% per year, the average aspirational Indian is being sold something quite different: hastily re-skinned versions of old car designs that will mostly not even pass current European and US safety tests. At best, they will scrape through with disgracefully low scores. Knee joints, rib cages, upper jaws will be broken far more frequently.

Maruti Suzuki manufactures India’s best-selling range of vehicles. Out of their 13 most popular family cars, the company’s own publicity doesn’t even mention the word “safety” on ten of them. It does, however, mention “…bold, sporty styling…”  “…the new force of excitement…” “…thrilling drive…” “…you will smile when you press the accelerator to pass another vehicle…”  All very similar terms to those used by western manufacturers like Ford or GM back in 1970.

So, let’s just pause for a moment and get this straight:

India in 2012 is going to greet the truly massive expansion of private car ownership by building cars that will not protect their occupants any better than westerner’s cars did in 1970?

Which lessons didn’t get learned?

Where is India’s “Ralph Nader”?

© 2012 Loop Withers Roadwax.com

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4 Responses to “A good car to have a crash in…? Part 1”

  1. Wim Oudijk February 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Maybe in a hindu country with a firm believe in reincarnation safety isn’t a selling argument?
    Just thinking…

    • roadwax February 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

      You may be right. But to “believe in reincarnation” is not the same as valuing, respecting and protecting ones own life and also those of others. All people, regardless of their individual religious faith, should have a right to expect that the tools they buy to help them conduct their lives are not so poorly designed that they cause the death of themselves or others.

  2. Zorki February 9, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

    No matter what, the money will rule. Demand is bigger than stock. Cheep cars is cheep to build. The cars cost must match the average “eastern” workers pay. Safety costs. Its better to sell 10 un-safe cheep cars than 1 safe one that is expencive.

    Well written as always Mr Withers, a pleasure to read!

  3. roadwax February 9, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Yes, the cars must be affordable. Somehow, those costs were “afforded” by western manufacturers for western workers in an identical economic scenario. Somehow, western manufacturers managed to improve both the design and the build quality.
    This will not happen unless pressure is put on manufacturers to put people before profit.

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