Unsafe Cars Can Save Lives

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

The London-based Global New Car Assessment Program tested seven cars made for the Indian market and handed five of them — the Renault Kwid, Maruti Suzuki Celerio, Maruti Suzuki Eeco, Mahindra Scorpio, and Hyundai Eon — a rating of zero stars out of five for adult safety. This leads Alex Tabarrok to remind us that unsafe cars can save lives:

These cars are very inexpensive. A Renault Kwid, for example, can be had for under $4000. In the Indian market these cars are competing against motorcycles. Only 6 percent of Indian households own a car but 47% own a motorcycle. Overall, there are more than five times as many motorcycles as cars in India.

Motorcycles are also much more dangerous than cars.

The [U.S] federal government estimates that per mile traveled in 2013, the number of deaths on motorcycles was over 26 times the number in cars.

Similar ratios are found in the UK and Australia. I can think of several reasons why the ratio might be lower in India–lower speeds, for example, but also several reasons why the ratio might be higher (see picture).

Indian Family on Motorcycle

The GNCAP worries that some Indian cars don’t have airbags but forgets that no Indian motorcycles have airbags. Even a zero-star car is much safer than a motorcycle. Air bags cost about $200-$400 (somewhat older estimates here a, b, c) and are not terribly effective. (Levitt and Porter, for example, calculated that air bags saved 550 lives in 1997 compared to 15,000 lives saved by seatbelts.) At $250, airbags would increase the cost of a $5,000 car by 5%. A higher price for automobiles would reduce the number of relatively safe automobiles and increase the number of relatively dangerous motorcycles and thus an air bag requirement could result in more traffic fatalities.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    It’s not even that bad. All those cars are still way better than Yugos or Trabants, the cars of choice in former Yugoslavia and East Germany respectively.

    Here is Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear driving, and cursing out my first ever car, the mighty Yugo 45!

  2. JBP says:

    Damn government meddling. Any country that allows motorcycles should allow those cars like the kwid. It’s corporate cronyism.

  3. James James says:

    See also: “Make Buses Dangerous” by Jeff Kaufman.

  4. David Foster says:

    This phenomenon may also apply to passenger railroads. I understand that American passenger railcar standards require much more weight than do their European equivalents. While this may increase survivability in a crash (and even this is questionable, since apparently the European approach uses improved structural design methods), the added weight requires more horsepower to haul, hence higher fuel consumption, shorter train lengths feasible for a given locomotive consists…all mapping into higher fares, less rail travel, and less driving.

    Haven’t worked through the math to see if the effect is significant, but it would be a good project for somebody’s economics or transportation thesis.

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