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Brazil’s automotive safety agenda

Brazil's new automotive safety agenda includes the opening of a new crash test centre

South America’s automotive market has been dealt a series of blows recently, with reports of shocking road fatality statistics appearing alongside the news that several major OEMs are selling vehicles which fail to meet the most basic of safety regulations. However, one country at least is looking to change things with a new government test centre

Considering Brazil’s booming market and ever-growing manufacturing capabilities, it seems almost absurd to suggest that the country’s automotive safety standards would lag behind the US and Europe. But lag they do – and it is by no small gap either.

However, the Brazilian government is trying to change things: these past few months have seen the country announce its intention to build its first crash test facility. Responding to an investigation by the Associated Press, which highlighted the lack of safety features on cars sold in Brazil, those in charge now hope to drastically improve the country’s safety record.

According to AP’s investigation, cars produced by global OEMs which are sold in Brazil have fewer safeguards compared with the same, or similar, models sold in markets such as the US and Europe.

Automotive accidents have been on the rise in Brazil, especially over the last decade, when car sales have also increased significantly. Although the country is home to one of the fastest growing automotive markets, it must bring its safety standards up to par before it can become a significant exporter of cars. As it is, Brazil’s car exports have plummeted nearly 50% since the highs of 2005.

In a bid to get back to this 2005 level, Luiz Moan, the new President of Brazil’s automotive lobbying group Anfavea, has set a goal of five million domestic car sales and five million domestically produced cars; including one million exports and one million imports.

According to Roger Lanctot, Associate Director of the global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, the country is still struggling to come to terms with increasing highway fatalities, and this is stalling the marketplace.

“If Brazil is to fulfill the opportunity of becoming one of the world’s leading automotive markets – not only consuming cars but building and selling them too – the quality and safety of the cars made in Brazil must improve,” Lanctot wrote in an article for Greenstreetsoftware.info.

Crash testing for dummies

The new facility plans entail an investment of US$50m. According to a document from the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade, this centre will be constructed on the outskirts of Rio de Janerio, with operation planned by 2017.

Although AP stated that the plans suggested the centre would be part-funded by OEMs, industry commentators have been left to wonder how the impartiality of the safety testing can be secured.

“Until now, there was nothing the government was testing,” an unnamed official told the AP. Considering the significant role played by the automotive industry in Brazil’s economic development, the matter of this crash test centre is a “politically sensitive” topic.

More than 100 fatalities a day

A report by the BBC in September 2012 found that around 40,000 people a year die on Brazil’s roads. This high incidence rate has been blamed on factors such as poor driving conditions, inexperienced drivers, and a high level of drink driving. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Brazil eighth in its list of road fatalities. In fact, according to the country’s Minister of Health, 42,844 people died from road accidents in 2010 – an increase of 21% compared with 2006.

WHO research has also found that car passengers account for 5% of all road accident fatalities in Brazil, with drivers accounting for a further 5%. The death toll on Brazil’s highways has now well surpassed the 100 fatalities a day seen in the US. The Huffington Post has attributed this high number to a combination of factors, including a lack of safety standards, test facilities and consumer awareness, and poorly regarded local build quality.

AP meanwhile, citing automotive engineers, put the deficit of safety standards down to the lack of body reinforcements, the use of lower quality steel in car bodies, weaker weld spots, and old car platforms.

But things can get better: March this year saw Latin NCAP release the test results of two new models produced in Brazil – the Ford EcoSport and the Hyundai HB20. Despite previously finding that the safety levels of certain popular cars sold in Latin America were 20 years behind industrialised countries – and well below global standards – upon completion of Phase 3 testing, it concluded that there is now “clear evidence that safer cars can be built in Latin America…at affordable prices…”

“It is frankly shocking that major manufacturers are willing to offer one star cars for sale in Latin America, when as a matter of routine their cars achieve five stars in Europe,” Max Mosley, Chairman of Global NCAP, said at the time. “Fortunately, with Latin NCAP putting vehicle safety on the agenda, we are now seeing some progress. The increase in cars earning four stars is welcome and brings us closer to the day when one star cars, which would fail to pass even the UN’s basic crash tests, are eliminated from the market entirely.”

Centralising safety

Dr Dirceu Alves of Abramet, a Brazilian association of doctors who specialise in treating traffic accident victims, believes that setting up a new crash test centre in Brazil will certainly improve safety. This is especially true as the government has no means to verify OEM claims on safety otherwise.

“There is no doubt about the importance of this lab,” Dr Alves told AP. “We cannot believe in the quality controls of the automakers alone. We believe it will be one of the factors in reducing the number of traffic fatalities.”

Some, however, do not feel that having a crash test facility alone is a complete solution. Alejandro Furas, Technical Director for Global NCAP, thinks that regulations are necessary for the facility to be fully useful. Furthermore, if OEMs help to fund the planned centre, it will not be “really independent at all”.

“It’s a good thing that there will be an independent crash laboratory,” Furas told AP. “But that doesn’t mean that cars will be better or safer. [It] is an incredible tool but there have to be regulations.”

David Isaiah

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