Don't Buy a Car in Brazil

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Automotive, Public Policy

Driving in Brazil is, by all accounts, a hazardous pastime.

For tourists, a website called justbrazil.com recommends: “It is generally accepted that tourists should not hire cars in Brazil unless they know what they’re doing! Road safety in Brazil is not the best in the world, and the standard of driving here leaves a lot to be desired.”

Passenger safety is not helped by the nearly 30 percent of passengers who rarely or never wear seat belts in spite of it being a legal requirement, according to this website. Brazil’s National Traffic Department is trying to pass a new rule mandating that all new cars be equipped with five lights on rear and front bumpers that would indicate how many passengers had their seat belts fastened presuming this would encourage greater compliance.

The Traffic Department would be better off mandating basic UN crash-test safety standards if they genuinely want to save lives, but such laws are not due to come into effect until nearly the middle of the decade. Meanwhile, Brazil’s health ministry ranks the country fifth for road mortalities after India, China, the US and Russia. Fatalities rose by almost 25 percent to 40,610 in 2010 compared to 2002, according to a recent FT article.

How Hard Is The Fix?

The tragedy is that many of these deaths are easily avoided. The most popular car models sold in Brazil are frequently made by Western manufacturers, models that in Europe or the US are made to much higher safety standards with airbags and other safety features earning them NCAP safety ratings of 4 or 5 stars. According to the FT, tests by Latin NCAP (New Car Assessment Program), the regional affiliate of an organization that conducts crash safety tests for European cars, found that many basic models made in Brazil and sold throughout Latin America lacked airbags and had poorly structured cabins.

Most of these, which included models made by Volkswagen, Fiat, Chevrolet, Ford and Peugeot, scored one star out of a possible five the second-lowest rating for safety in a head-on collision. A model from China’s Geely scored zero. “One star that is equivalent to a dead driver, David Ward, secretary-general of Global NCAP is quoted as saying.

Western car manufacturers developed the very technology required to raise safety levels twenty years ago, but do not fit them except as optional extras because the government has not historically seen fit to mandate them. For example, the basic version of Volkswagen’s best-selling Gol 1.6 litre scored one star in the crash test, which was conducted at 64 kilometres per hour (40 mph), while the Gol with two airbags scored three stars a survival rating in a collision.

One can imagine there was much agonizing around the board tables of Western carmakers surrounding the decision to sell cars with such appalling safety results; those same carmakers make much of their safety credentials when marketing cars in Western Europe or North America, yet in Latin America they made the conscious decision to put their buyers’ lives at risk in pursuit of sales.

Ultimately, the principal blame must lie with the Brazilian government for failing to mandate the use of ABS and a minimum number of driver and passenger airbags, but one wonders how many of those 40,000 deaths a year would have been avoided if carmakers had taken it on themselves to make such basic safety features standard.

–Stuart Burns

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