Safety not an option

A car safety device, proven to save lives and widely available in Europe, is not being fitted as standard in cars for the Irish market or promoted by the Road Safety Authority or the government. Patrick Boyle investigates

A   car stability device which can reduce road fatalities by up to 20 per cent is not being fitted as standard in cars sold on the Irish market. In comparison, many of the same cars sold in Europe are fitted with the device. Additionally, the Irish government and the Road Safety Authority (RSA) are not promoting the device to Irish consumers.

The main reason for the low availability of the device is a lack of demand from Irish consumers. The device costs €1,000 to be fitted, 50 per cent of which is tax. However, the government has no plans to reduce to tax.

The device is called Electronic Stability Control (ESC). ESC electronically senses when a driver is about to lose control of their car. It does this by detecting differences between the car's actual course and the driver's intended direction of travel. By applying brakes to individual wheels, ESC helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle and steer safely. Research by the Road Safety Authority and an Garda Síochána shows that driver error is a contributory factor in almost 90 per cent of road collisions.  

International research carried out in Sweden, Japan, the US, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK shows a reduction of 20 per cent in fatalities where ESC is fitted.

Stability control is “the greatest life-saving technology since the seat belt”, according to the head of the US National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) – the equivalent of our Road Safety Authority. The NHTSA made it policy in September 2006 that ESC should be fitted as standard equipment to all new cars there by 2012.

According to EuroNCAP – the independent New Car Assessment Programme that tests new cars for crash-worthiness in Europe – cars fitted with stability control are significantly less likely to be involved in accidents. It says ESC's intervention can mean the difference between an accident and a near miss.

Research by the Swedish equivalent of the Road Safety Authority found that in: “single/oncoming/overtaking crashes on wet or icy roads, the reduction [in crashes] is in the order of 50 per cent”. This is very relevant to Ireland as a majority of our accidents are single-vehicle accidents, and it does rain here a lot. The research concluded that “80-100 fatalities could be saved annually if all cars had ESC” from a total of 500 vehicle-related deaths in Sweden annually.

In Ireland, based on 2006 fatality figures, a conservative estimate would point to at least 60 lives being saved. This would bring the government to within striking distance of its own target of reducing road fatalities to 300 per year. One-hundred-and-thirty-one people had been killed on Ireland's roads as of 14 May this year.


Cars on the market

Research by this reporter into the fitment rate of ESC in the Irish market reveals that of the 10 bestselling cars here, only one of them has stability control fitted as standard. At least seven out of 10 of these same cars have it fitted as standard in Sweden.  

Bosch, the inventor of the device, estimates the fitment rate here for new cars at around 30 per cent. But their spokesperson admitted they didn't have any actual data for Ireland and the figure was based on the assumption that cars fitted with it in the UK had it fitted here, too.  

Neither the Volkswagen Golf 1.4 litre nor 70 per cent of the Toyota Avensis 1.6 sold here, both topselling models, have the device fitted as standard in Ireland, whereas all models of both cars have it fitted in the UK.

Toyota says that stability control is now an option on all models, but my dealers revealed a lack of awareness of this. Several dealers said that ESC was not available on the Yaris, Auris and Avensis 1.6 models – even as an option.

In the UK and Sweden, ESC is fitted on all variants of the VW Golf, but in Ireland it is only standard on the more expensive models.  

“We have to make a judgement call to say ‘can we afford to put it on it?', and whether the customer will buy it,” says Tom O'Connor of VW Ireland.  “If you say to somebody, I can give you ESC or a sun-roof, they'll take the sun-roof.”

Alan Nolan, deputy chief executive of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI), says, however, that customers will simply not pay for safety. “Research shows that people are prepared to pay very little extra to save themselves because they believe it's never going to happen to them,” he says.  


The tax factor

But there are other factors at work. The cost of ESC in Ireland, where not fitted as standard - at up to €1,000 on the most popular models – is prohibitive. The NHTSA estimates the additional cost will work out at just $111 (€82) per car in the US.

In addition, Irish dealers quoted longer delivery times for cars fitted with ESC as an option.  This acts as a disincentive to purchase not only for consumers but also for dealers under pressure to reach short-term sales targets.

Part of the reason the cost in Ireland is so high is because of tax. As much as 56 per cent of the cost of ESC here is as a result of tax, according to SIMI.

Conor Faughnan, Public Affairs Manager with the AA, argues that the tax on the device should be removed. He highlights the 1999 report by Peter Bacon on road fatalities, which put the economic cost of a death at IR£1m. “You could index link that since then and statistically conclude that the cost to the economy when a road death occurs is €1.5m,” he says.  

At present the Road Safety Authority is not pushing the ESC message in Ireland. It's been up and running for less than a year, and Brian Farrell from the RSA says that they are tackling issues like driver-behaviour factors in road fatalities such as drink driving, inappropriate speed and driver training first. “We have to get the basics right first... Cars don't kill people, people kill people when driving cars.”

Bosch does run a European-wide programme to educate motor dealers on the benefits of stability control. But the company has no firm plans to bring this demonstration to Irish dealers, although it would be happy to do so. “We have this issue whether the factory-fitted option would ever be bought – ever – because it's taxed so highly.”

The EU Commission, the FIA (the body that administers Formula 1 racing) and EuroNCAP launched a European-wide awareness campaign on 8 May to promote the fitment of ESC across Europe. Dubbed ‘Choose ESC!', it represents a key plank in the EU strategy to cut the number of road-traffic fatalities in half by 2010.

The joint Oireachtas committee on enterprise and small business considered the issue of high taxation on safety features here last year. The committee reported that the “unfortunate” and “unintentional effects” of Vehicle Registration Tax in respect to safety equipment “[brought] about the offer of less safety features on cars imported into Ireland”. But no action has been taken on the issue.

Village submitted a list of questions to the Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Transport, asking whether there were any plans to remove taxation from safety features such a stability control.

The Department of Finance said, “It is likely that there would be difficulties defining the scope of ‘safety features' for the purposes of reducing the VRT for a car... If certain safety features are considered essential, the most effective means of ensuring that they are installed in cars is through regulation and not through tax breaks.”  

The view from interested parties was that regulation will most likely come from Brussels, rather than the Irish government, in the next few years.