How safe is safe?

Paging through Wine magazine I was introduced to the “raging debate” about the merits of Crouchen Blanc grapes labelled Reisling in South Africa. I know —

Okay, honestly, I don’t know — I couldn’t care less. I was once advised, when on a date, to order the fourth-least expensive bottle off the menu (that’s the best compromise between quality and price) and I haven’t given wine much thought since then.

A debate that I have been following is over antilock brake systems (ABS) in entry-level cars.
Since the Chinese brought cut-price cars to the local market, ABS has become a topical subject. Of Chinese manufactured cars, not one cheapest-to-buy Hafei, Geely, Chana or Chery model comes with ABS.

And it’s hard to find other entry-level cars that have standard ABS. Notable entry-level spec passenger models without ABS include the Hyundai i10, Getz, Accent and Atos, the Fiat Palio and Panda, the Kia Picanto, the Daihatsu Charade, the Nissan Livina and Tida, the Opel Corsa Lite, the Renault Clio Va-Va-Voom, the Chevrolet Spark and Optra, the Tata B-line, Indica and Indigo, the Citroen C3, the Toyota Avanza, the Ford Fiesta and - the one most of us love to hate - the VW Citi Golf.

Hyundai has the most entry-level models (four) without ABS, while VW is the only manufacturer not to offer ABS in its cheapest range, the Citi Golf.

The most expensive model without ABS is the Chevrolet Optra 1,6-litre, which sells for R153 370.

The cheapest model with ABS standard in the range is the Ford Ka 1,3-litre, which sells for R86 590. However, the Daihatsu Charade 1,0-litre Classic without ABS sells for slightly more at R86 995 and the model with ABS (1,0-litre Celeb) retails for R97 995. That’s about R11 000 difference.

The price difference between the ABS-fitted Chevrolet Spark 1,0-litre LT and the 1,0-litre LS is only R9 080. The Daihatsu and Chevrolet, which have the same power output, cost a similar amount, but an ABS-fitted Daihatsu will sell for about R2 000, or 5% more. This is peculiar as motor manufacturers don’t develop their own ABS systems. Most systems are licensed to Bosch.

But does ABS make cars safer?

United States federal department and insurance claim studies do not have findings that show ABS reduces traffic collisions. The Highway Loss Data Institute investigated claims from 1994 and found no reduction in the frequency or cost incurred of collisions involving cars with ABS. And a 2001 report concluded that “the overall, net effect of antilock brakes on both police-reported crashes and fatal crashes was close to zero”.

ABS works via a computer that interprets data from sensors on each wheel. The computer overrides driver input if it senses the wheels are going to lock with heavy braking. The sensors reduce brake force accordingly to maintain a wheel’s rotational force and prevents it from skidding.

It is argued that stopping a wheel from skidding doesn’t necessarily reduce its braking distance before it comes to a stop or hits another object. It will bring the car to a stop in a more controlled fashion, but not necessarily faster. Physics studies on the subject show that the difference between the “frictional resistance” of a skidding wheel and the “rotational resistance” of a turning wheel are negligible.

This is why manufacturers have continued to develop other active safety concepts. These include:

  • Electronic brake force distribution, which not only prevents skidding but redirects brake force to the appropriate wheels.

  • Electronic stability control, which adds two sensors on to those of ABS to monitor gyroscopic acceleration and steering wheel angle to ensure they do not overpower each another.

  • Traction control, which, through the ABS sensors, ensures traction is not exceeded when accelerating.

So, when buying a new car, if your only concern is safety, where should you draw the line? Will you settle for ABS or ABS and airbags or ABS, airbags and traction control? Should every car be required legally to come standard with ABS? Based on the studies into the effectiveness of ABS you can understand why that isn’t the case.

But would you be comfortable buying a car without standard technology that’s been around for 20 years? That’s the consumer’s choice and as long as consumers keep a market open for manufacturers to sell new vehicles without ABS, this will continue to be an issue.

But hopefully when it comes to safety, unlike my ignorance on wine, consumers won’t go for the fourth-least expensive offering on the menu just for the sake of it.

With or without ABS
Most expensive cars without ABS
Model Power Price
Chevrolet Optra 1.6l 80kW R153 370
Hyundai Accent 1.6l SR 82kW R149 900
Nissan Tida Visia 80kW R147 000
Hyundai Getz 1.4l SR 71kW R134 900
Citreon C3 1.4l Furio 56kW R132 995

Cheapest new cars with ABS
Geely CK1 1.3l GS 63kW R82 395
Chery QQ3 1.1l Lux 50kW R82 900
Ford Ka 1.3l Ambiente 51kW R86 590
Chana Benni 1.3l Excl 63kW R89 900
Chevrolet Spark 1.0l LT 49kW R91 970

Safety features
Seat belts
There is legislation governing seat belts as standard equipment in cars. Studies have shown seat belts reduce injuries and fatalities in collisions. A federal study in the United States concluded that when not wearing a seat belt, one had a 46% greater risk of death or injury in a collision. The Saab GT750 was the first car fitted with seat belts in 1958 and in 1959, after the wife of Volvo’s chief executive was involved in an accident, Volvo introduced the three-point seat belt with a ratcheting mechanism—the same system used worldwide today.

Airbags first made an appearance in the 1970s, marketed as an alternative to non-seat belt-wearing motorists. General Motors was the first to offer airbags as optional extras. But the first-generation, dual-stage airbags were thought to have been responsible for seven fatalities in GM’s test fleet. The dual-stage system would inflate the airbag with increasing velocity according to the collision velocity. It took the development of the crash test dummy to remedy this. Like ABS, airbags first appeared in Europe in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and, jokes about hamburger-eating Americans aside, EU regulations dictate that European airbags be smaller and deploy less forcefully than American ones.

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