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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 9, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    Safety takes a back seat?

    Neil Briscoe

    Seatbelt warnings are one of the many worthy but occasionally irritating safety gizmos that are now de rigeur on all cars. Bing-bong it will go if you or your passenger forgets to put on their belts. Helpful. Sometimes annoying. And just a tiny bit useless. Yes, I can see the utility of such a device when it comes to drivers who do not habitually wear their seatbelts, but surely such people are an ever decreasing breed. I cannot think of a single person I know from my 64-year-old father on down, who does not instantly and instinctively put on their seatbelts as soon as they sit in the car.

    For a front seat passenger, such a device is also somewhat superfluous. After all, assuming that the driver is a regular seatbelt wearer (and I am assuming that) then it only takes the briefest of glances to see if your companion is belted in or not. A bing bong is of limited utility in this case, I would think.

    But what about in the back? My kids are, God help me, clever and figuring out a seatbelt latch is less than second’s work to them. There are more than a few cars with a visual warning that a rear seatbelt in an occupied seat is not fastened, but none that I can think of that gives an audible warning. For the harassed, distracted family driver, a discreet bing bong at this point would be rather useful.

    All of this came up the other day, because of one of those small facts that usually only comes to light because of a mistake. In this case, it was a typo on a Skoda press pack which stated that that the current Octavia has a seatbelt warning system for the passenger seat.

    In fact it doesn’t, an omission that prompted a phone call to Skoda to find out why. And while you might be expecting a witch-hunting piece of angry consumer journalism here, unfortunately for the crusading journalist, Raymond Leddy, marketing manager for Skoda Ireland had a perfectly reasonable explanation:

    “Sadly, it’s not available. If it was available, even as an option, rest assured that it would be specced on the car. Something to bear in mind is that all of the Octavia’s competitors are very new, whereas the Octavia was originally introduced back in 2004. It’s a car from a different era, really, so the comparison with newer vehicles is unfair. It’s worth point out that we have an all-new Octavia coming in 2013, and I would expect that it will have all of the latest safety equipment and systems.”

    Now, Skoda weren’t trying to spoof the public here, it was a miss-print on an info sheet handed out to journalists. The spec quoted on Skoda’s website is correct and if you go to the EuroNCAP website and examine the safety ratings, you will indeed find that the Octavia scores a 4-star rating (a pretty respectable figure back in 2004) whereas its more youthful competition are all five-star holders.

    But back to my need for an audible rear seat warning. So far, the only car maker I can find that offers an audible rear belt warning is, surprise, surprise, Volvo. Tomas Broberg, one of Volvo’s safety experts told me that “Volvo provides a notification to the driver in the dash board information panel to confirm on start up which rear seat belt is used (i.e. left, right or middle).  However as there is always a risk that a child will unfasten their seat belt once the car is moving, there is an audible warning should a rear seat belt be undone in transit. Volvo first introduced this feature in 2004 with the S40.  Since then Euro NCAP picked it up and have started awarding an additional point for this feature.  As a consequence other manufacturers are starting to add this feature, driven by the NCAP focus. Give it time and most or all will be on board with this.”

    There is a another question though; how much is safety merely a marketing tool of the car makers? Clearly, if you go out and have a head-on shunt this afternoon (and I hope you don’t, believe me) then the safety equipment loaded onto your car will be of rather more import than merely a salesman’s gimmick. But while it’s a commercially sensible idea for car makers to keep their customers alive, beyond the extreme situation of having a major accident, what benefit do you actually accrue from your car’s safety kit?

    Actually, mostly you don’t get a benefit at all; quite the reverse. Safety equipment is costly both in terms of weight and raw hard cash. The cost of developing new airbags, crush cells, ABS and ESP, radar based ‘crash sensing’ systems and the like is added to and amortised by the cost of the car you buy. And the extra kilos it all adds means that there’s an extra drag on your car’s performance and fuel economy. There’s also an argument that says that fitting kilos of extra safety gizmos adds so much weight that it actually makes any impact that much worse because of the extra kinetic energy involved, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.

    What about insurance though? It would seem that it should only be right for a person buying a car from a maker with an unblemished safety record (some Swedish company or other, let’s say) to be in line for a discount on their insurance relative to someone buying a car with a less impressive safety record. Furthermore, if this fictional car buyer were to spend extra money on optional safety toys (lane keeping, rear side airbags etc etc) then surely they should be in line for even more knocked off their premiums. It doesn’t seem to happen though, does it?

    In fact, you’ll still have to pay a full whack of Vehicle Registration Tax and VAT on even the most altruistic of vehicle safety equipment. So perhaps insurance prices shouldn’t be the only potential benefit to those buying safe cars. After all, car crashes and their aftermaths have a wider impact than just immediate personal tragedy. A death on the road has a cost implication to the national exchequer, of around €2-million. Surely, therefore, as Ministers Noonan and Hogan are working on their new and doubtless fiendish car tax regime, they should be building in lower tax bands for those of us driving the safest cars?

    • JOD says:

      Ralph Nader once said that if everyone in America drove a Volvo it would reduce RTA fatalities by 75%. High praise indeed from the man who killed the Corvair which was actually a very nice car and once the rear suspension was changed to a double wishbone the tail-wagging was much reduced but by then it was too late she’d been Naderized). I find the bing-bong in my jammer annoying because everytime I throw my laptop bag in the passenger seat it goes off.

    • D Browne says:

      A lot of people use the rear seat of their car for carrying items other than people. For many trips the rear seat can be home to inanimate items such as handbags, shopping and school bags because it is easier to access than the boot. A single 2 litre bottle of water will set off the seatbelt alarm on the front passenger seat of my Toyota Avensis. If the same system was installed in the rear seats, every journey would involve that jarring noise, resulting in everything stored in the boot, resulting in the driver being inconvenienced.


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