Proposed ban on 'unsafe' imports makes no sense

ANCAP
Watch as a 1998 Toyota Corolla is smashed head-on into a 2015 model in a crash test to demonstrate safety advancements.

OPINION: There's been lots of discussion over a proposed ban of "unsafe" used-import cars.

Banning one and two-star vehicles from the NZ fleet is one of the top five priorities of the Vehicle, Vehicle Standards and Certification Reference Group, an advisor to the Government on road safety strategy.

On paper, this ban would affect some of NZ's most popular used imports, including the Suzuki Swift, Toyota Corolla and Mazda2/Demio.

This Swift is one of the safest cars of 2016, according to NZ Government. And also a safety risk, according to the NZ Govt.
SUPPLIED
This Swift is one of the safest cars of 2016, according to NZ Government. And also a safety risk, according to the NZ Govt.

I hope the VVSCRG (catchy) didn't spend too much time on this, because it seems this is all a lot of confusing noise about nothing.

READ MORE:
* Should one-star crash-test cars be banned? The AA says no
* Ancap smashes new into old to demonstrate car safety gains
* MG scores China's first five-star safety rating

Keeping other countries' old rubbish off our roads is a great idea, as is an any improvement in road safety. But I'm not sure this will achieve either.

Mazda2 from 2007-14 is a full five-star crash-test car. But it would be banned as a used import under proposed Government changes.
Dave Moore
Mazda2 from 2007-14 is a full five-star crash-test car. But it would be banned as a used import under proposed Government changes.

It's all a bit confusing to us regular people, but to understand how this car-damning star rating system works you need to know the difference between Australasian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP) crash testing and the NZ Government's Used Car Safety Rating data.

ANCAP star ratings are the ones we are all familiar with. They apply to new cars and are undertaken in a crash-test laboratory under controlled conditions. They are recognised as part of a global NCAP standard.

The Government references ANCAP ratings for cars up to the age of seven years old. After that, it uses something called Used Car Safety Ratings, which are derived from police-reported road crashes.

This generation Corolla got four stars from NCAP when new - but only two from Used Car Safety Rating data.
Trevor Read
This generation Corolla got four stars from NCAP when new - but only two from Used Car Safety Rating data.

Exactly how these Used Car ratings are calculated is not clear, but the NZTA says the vehicle's "size and weight, design, and safety features it has, such as airbags and types of seat belts, are all taken into account."

To my mind, the problem with the Used Car Safety Rating data is something I learned in Third Form science: to get an accurate result an experiment needs a control, so you can verify your result.

Studying real-world crashes is a worthy undertaking (Volvo has been doing it in a detailed way in Sweden for decades), but using those wildly varying results to establish star ratings to compare one car with another seems absurd. If Car A is one star and Car B is two stars, is the former really that much less safe when the accidents were of a totally different type, in a totally different place and with totally different drivers?

No two crashes are the same.

The NZTA does acknowledge these Used Car ratings do "not assess the risk of being involved in the crash in the first place, which can be influenced by vehicle technology, driver behaviour, vehicle condition and the road environment". 

To my mind they are all the most relevant things when talking about a crash involving an older car in the real world.

I'm not a vehicle safety expert of course. But ANCAP, endorsed and partially funded by the NZ Government, is.

According to ANCAP, a 2011 Suzuki Swift is a five-star crash-test car. According to Used Car Safety Rating data, it's a one-star car and should be banned. How can one of the safest small cars on sale three years ago now be a safety risk?

The earlier 2005-10 Swift is a four-star ANCAP car but only gets two stars from the Used Car calculation (more than the later-model car though!).

It's a similar case for the Toyota Corolla (2002-07), which gets four stars from ANCAP but two from Used Car data. Or the Mazda2/Demio (2007-14), which is a five-star car according to ANCAP but a two-star proposition if you believe its Used Car Safety Rating.

 One thing is clear: one of these systems is not a reliable source of safety data.

I'd pick the one that uses actual science.

It's a moot point anyway, because all used imports coming to NZ have to meet Euro 4 or later emissions regulations. Even being extremely generous and saying that all cars post-2006 (when it came into force in Europe) qualify, you're still only talking about a handful of passenger vehicles that score low on Used Car Ratings but could still be imported into NZ as used cars.

A ban would hit the extremely popular Suzuki Swift hardest of all, because of that bizarre rating that suggests a near-new 2016 Swift is deeply unsafe... and actually less safe than the previous model.

A final example: the 2003-08 Holden Rodeo gets three stars from Used Car Safety Rating data. The 2008-11 Holden Colorado RC leaps to an excellent five stars.

The big difference between Rodeo and Colorado over this period was of course that Holden lost the rights to the "Rodeo" name, so it changed the badges. Other than that, same vehicle.

Stuff