Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Letter to the Editor: Car Safety, Performance and Environmental Ratings Depend On More Factors Than Just Age


In coming to a decision on whether to impose a mandatory 12-year cap on the lifespan of private vehicles, the Ministry of Transport should consider the feedback of citizens, organisations and professional bodies. (The Star, 20 Nov 2013). The safety, performance and environmental ratings of vehicles depend on more factors than just their age.

The automotive industry, understandably, sees increased sales as a much-needed shot in the arm for the industry and the nation's economy. However, from an environmental point of view, purchasing used goods, including automobiles, is a wise decision as it reduces the need to extract and transport raw materials. Buying a car the second time around also means we avoid consuming all the energy used in producing and transporting a new vehicle, and hence significantly reducing the generation of waste matter and carbon emissions.

The environmental cost of a new car is high. Researchers at the Heidelberg Environment and Forecasting Institute who computed the financial, environmental and health impacts of a medium-sized car found evidence to confirm that long before the car has reached the showroom, it has produced significant amounts of damage to air, water and land ecosystems through the extraction of raw materials alone. A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that as much as 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during the lifecycle of a typical petroleum-powered car can occur during its manufacture and its transportation to the dealer; the remaining emissions occur during driving once its new owner takes possession. Even new hybrid vehicles, despite lower emissions and better mileage, actually have a much larger environmental impact in their manufacture, compared to non-hybrids. The batteries that store energy for the drivetrain and having two engines under one hood all increase manufacturing emissions. Thus, the environmental impact of manufacturing a car extends way beyond the car's useful life.

According to Andrew Davis, director of the UK Environmental Transport Association, "Of all the main environmental variables involved with buying a car - size, pollutants, age, speed, etc – whether to buy new or used is the least important. It is the length of time a car is kept that is crucial. The average car is kept for four years. Buying a new car and keeping it for its entire life is more environmentally friendly than buying a one-year-old car every year".

The Transport Minister’s argument that a 12-year cap on the lifespan of cars is “in the public interest” and that it “would not create an unnecessary financial burden” on citizens is not supported by evidence. There are currently insufficient realistic alternatives to private vehicle ownership in Malaysia. The public transport system is often unreliable and unavailable to those living outside the city centre. High crime rates have made walking, cycling and waiting for public transport unsafe and unattractive options for many. Most employers are still unable or unwilling to offer employees the option of telecommuting or working from home to reduce the need for driving and commuting. A 12-year cap on private vehicle lifespan would almost certainly place an additional economic burden on citizens forced to take up loans for new vehicles.

From a vehicle safety and performance perspective, it is foreseeable that many lower-income individuals forced to give up sturdier older vehicles would be able to afford nothing more than the cheapest cars which have low safety ratings and negligible safety features. Thus, forcing vehicle owners to replace their old cars would not only increase household debt, but also have an adverse impact on road safety and traffic accident survival rates.

Claiming that older cars are unsafe and not roadworthy is overly simplistic, while setting a lifespan cap of 12 years is arbitrary. The article citing the statements of the Director-General of the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS) does not provide traffic accident statistics or indicate the percentage of vehicles involved in accidents that are above 12 years old.

The performance of cars depends on many factors, including the frequency and quality of service and maintenance, and whether repairs and modifications are made to improve efficiency. Vehicle and road safety almost always depends on factors such as the vehicle condition (steering, brakes and tyres), the driver’s mental and physical condition, and road and traffic conditions (lighting, weather conditions, visibility). Whether someone is likely to survive a major road accident depends on other safety factors such as the weight, height and length of the vehicle, vehicle construction (e.g. pickup trucks and SUVs may have bettter reinforcement and safety cage designs), seatbelt use, airbags and head restraints (i.e. headrests to prevent whiplash injury). None of these are dependent on the age of a car. Many safety features could be easily retrofitted into older cars, while newer cars that are cheaply built, poorly maintained or have an existing crash history would not fare better than older vehicles in an accident.

The idea that we should replace our cars merely because they are 'old' has no economic or environmental legitimacy. Ultimately, how and when we choose to drive, and how we maintain our vehicles, are more important than whether we buy used or new cars when considering the question of how safe, efficient or environmentally sound a vehicle is.


No comments: