It is safety and not sexy that is selling cars these days

As we all know by now there will be new reg plates next year. The trade fervently hopes that the ‘131’ and ‘132’ plates will mean they start selling cars in numbers again. Drop into a car showroom anywhere and they will be only too pleased to tell you all about it.

But while they are vaulting over each other to pour you coffee, take a thumb through the pristine brochures and look at how cars are being sold these days.

Car brochures used to be a doddle. You went for big production values, glossy presentation, and you went large on technical language and performance stats. 0-60 in 7 seconds, top speed 130mph. Why did they never mention how quickly a car went from 60-0 under braking, a far more important bit of knowledge?

Your hero would be a Sean Connery type, probably in tennis whites sporting a Rolex, and possibly lighting an urbane cigarette with a gold lighter. And of course you would have to have a sexy girl either cooing at him or draped across the bonnet (it would not have become a cliché if it hadn’t been so common).

That seventies brochure was innocent in its time. Now touches all the bases and offends just about everyone. We have seen a profound change in social values in that time.

The emergence of women as a key market was one clear change. It became clear that when a family made any major purchase the female partner played at the very least an equal role, and gradually the advertising messages spoke less to the exclusively male aspirations and more to the female.

Remarkably, car makers began to care about women. At least they cared about the money in their purses. Car designers put personal mirrors on the driver’s side for the first time. Nowadays the assumption of parity of esteem between the sexes is so complete that when you get a conflicting message it grates horribly, like an old-timer making a racist remark and thinking he will get a laugh.

Progress, most of us would agree. And the modern brochure tells us a bit about modern aspirations. If you want to find the 0-60 figure it will probably be there (as 0-100kph) buried in the small print at the back. What will jump out at you is the car’s Crash test star rating, and its CO2 consumption figure.

There is a virtuous circle here. Car makers have been put under huge pressure both by European law-makers and by the buying public to make cars safer. The response has been amazing. The passive safety systems on cars these days are phenomenal.

There is a body called the European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP) that carries out independent crash tests and awards star ratings. When the programme began in 1997 most cars were getting one or two stars. Nowadays almost all cars have 5-star passenger protection. They simply won’t sell without it.

There has been a decade or more of progress in road safety that we can rightly take pride in. Road deaths are half what they were at the turn of the century, an attention-grabbing figure that clearly says something good is going on.

Success has many fathers as the saying goes. It was certainly better Irish policing, tighter laws, breathalysers and penalty points. The major improvement on main roads has been very significant as well.

For every death on the road there are somewhere between six and eight serious injuries. They get fewer headlines but each one is a story of shattered lives. That too is an improving situation; last year saw the lowest number of serious injuries since records began; there were ‘only’ 440.

We now have better cars on better roads. I think we also have better drivers. Not in the sense that they are more skilled but in the sense that they are more aware and more appreciative of the need to drive safely.

Not everyone and not all the time of course. But like the sexist girl-on-bonnet image, the days of the reckless driver boasting about how fast his car is in the pub appear to be behind us. Good riddance.

 

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