Ambrosia Torres cares for her two grandchildren, who were in their family’s Nissan Tsuru when their parents were killed in a crash.

Marco Ugarte • Associated Press,

This Dec. 22, 2005 photo courtesy of Ambrosia Torres' family shows the wedding portrait of Diana Martinez and Carlos Gomez in Mexico. On March 28, 2013, the couple was killed and their children, Carlos, 6, and Fatima, 3, were badly injured after their Nissan Tsuru was hit by a drunk driver. The family had set out on a Holy Week road trip to visit relatives in southern Mexico when the driver's pickup swerved into their lane and struck their car head-on. The Tsuruís steering wheel tore through the rib cage of Gomez, while Martinezís head collided with the dashboard and snapped back with such force that her seat ended up fully reclined. Perhaps one or both the parents would have survived if the red 1998 Tsuru had air bags installed, two brothers of Diana Martinez say. (AP Photo)

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Mexico lets carmakers skip safety features

  • November 28, 2013 - 7:55 PM

– In Mexico’s booming auto industry, the cars rolling off assembly lines may look identical, but how safe they are depends on where they’re headed.

Vehicles to be sold in Mexico or the rest of Latin America carry a code signifying there’s no need for antilock braking systems, electronic stability control, or more than two air bags, if any, in its basic models.

If the cars will be exported to the United States or Europe, however, they must meet stringent safety laws, say engineers who have worked in Mexico-based auto factories.

The price of the two versions is about the same, adding to the bottom lines of automakers such as General Motors and Nissan. But the practice is being blamed for a surge in auto-related fatalities in Mexico.

“We are paying for cars that are far more expensive and far less safe,” said Alejandro Furas, technical director for Global New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP, a vehicle crash-test group. “Something is very wrong.”

In 2011, nearly 5,000 drivers and passengers in Mexico died in accidents, a 58 percent increase since 2001, according to the latest available data. Over the same decade, auto-related fatalities in the United States dropped by 40 percent.

Nevertheless, Mexico hasn’t introduced any safety proposals other than general seat belt requirements for its 22-million strong auto fleet.

Dr. Arturo Cervantes Trejo, director of the Mexican Health Ministry’s National Accident Prevention Council, said the country has a long way to go to upgrade safety standards, but challenging its $30 billion auto industry could be difficult.

“It’s a complicated subject because of the amount of money carmakers bring to this country. The economy protects them,” Cervantes said.

In a matter of a few years, Mexico has become the world’s fourth biggest auto exporter, despite having no homegrown brands, and its car fleet doubled between 2001 and 2011, the latest national figures show.

Nissan Mexicana spokesman Herman Morfin said in a statement it is “common practice” to add different features, depending on the intended market.

“Because there are many choices of specifications and equipment, specific marketing strategies by country, in addition to the tax difference among countries, states and cities, also including transportation and delivery costs, it’s not possible to make a direct comparison among vehicles sold in each market, based on the list price published on the Web,” he said.

Morfin said two of Nissan’s most popular models — the Versa and the Sentra — are packaged with two air bags and an antilock braking system, which is more than the Mexican government requires.

Paco de Anda, the director of the Mexican chapter for the accident-prevention group Safe Kids, said Latin American consumers have to pay extra for those protections.

“Features that are already mandatory in other countries, here they are selling them as optional items,” De Anda said. “People here have no education about road safety … so they don’t pay for it.”

Yet crash test results show exactly what’s being sacrificed.

One of Nissan’s most popular models in Mexico, the Tsuru, has only lap seat belts in the back and some versions have no air bags at all. At a recent Latin NCAP crash test presentation, the Tsuru’s driver’s door ripped off upon impact at only 37 miles per hour. Its roof collapsed and the steering wheel slammed against the crash test dummy’s chest. The Tsuru scored zero stars out of a possible five.

When asked about the crash test, Nissan representatives replied in an e-mail that “consumers continue to ask for it because of its durability, reliability and affordability,” without responding specifically to the test results. More than 300,000 Tsurus have been sold in Mexico in the past six years, at about $10,000 each.

Carlos Gomez and his wife, Diana Martinez, and two children, were driving across country in March when they were hit head-on by a drunken driver in a pickup truck.

The couple died from chest and head injuries. The children survived but spent weeks in the hospital. Carlos, 6, cannot walk.

Family members said the investigation didn’t determine whether air bags would have saved the parents’ lives, but there was an air bag in the truck that struck them. That driver was not injured.

“Mexico has to take a good look at itself, at the problems it’s facing,” NCAP’s Furas said. “It is selling unsafe cars to its own people.”

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