Why Aren't Auto Safety Standards Universal?



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Why do the U.S. and Europe have different safety standards? Every country feels like it knows the best way to protect motorists. (This piece initially aired on April 30, 2014 on Morning Edition.)

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One of the tensions in the Volkswagen emissions scandal is the difference in standards between the U.S. and Europe. And that's not the only difference. For years, there's been debate about the different safety standards for cars around the world. In this encore report, Robert Smith of our Planet Money podcast explains why.


ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: OK, pick out a brand-new car, made in America.

STEVE: Welcome to Camp Jeep, you guys. My name's Steve, and I'll be your operator.

SMITH: Throw some radio reporters in the back seat and head out for a test drive.

STEVE: In our 2014 Jeep Wrangler...

SMITH: Steve takes us over a series of fake hills and bumps.

STEVE: Hey, are you OK?


STEVE: You're going to destroy this thing.

SMITH: All right. Could you drive this Jeep off-road?

STEVE: Yeah, absolutely.

SMITH: Could you drive it through a river?

STEVE: You can water ford with it.

SMITH: So can you drive this thing anywhere?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can drive it a lot of places you can't drive your Cadillac.

SMITH: But there is one very obvious place that you cannot drive this Jeep - Europe - because there are hundreds of standards a car has to meet in order to drive it in Europe. And those rules just happen to be different than the standards in the U.S. Now, some of these differences are easy to fix. In the United States, turn signals are amber. In Europe, they have to be clear. But the rules get more complicated. At the New York Auto Show, I met up with David Shepardson from the Detroit News, and he showed me the Fiat 500. It's a car that you see everywhere in Italy, but Fiat had to redesign it for America.

DAVID SHEPARDSON: The windshield wipers - American regulations require that the windshield wipers capture a larger part of the windshield, versus European ones.

SMITH: I mean, what is the even logic behind that?

SHEPARDSON: I guess Americans might be taller on average. I mean I'm struggling here - I agree with you - to come up with a rationalization.

SMITH: Now, why can't regulators in Europe and the United States get together and just come up with one kind of windshield wiper? They have been trying for years, but countries get very touchy about their rules because it all comes down to safety. Every culture has a different opinion about what's safe and what's not.

So you know in the U.S. they have crash tests, right? In Europe, they do the same test, but they also make sure that the cars are safe for pedestrians. Literally, they test cars to see if you can hit someone and have that person survive. Trent Warnke (ph) is with Porsche.

TRENT WARNKE: And the hoods in Europe actually have to have a different standard than in the United States. They have to be able to, for lack of a better term, absorb somebody's head hitting the hood if a car were to hit a pedestrian.

SMITH: So if I'm a pedestrian hit by a car, it's probably better to be hit by a car on the European standards than it is one of these American cars over here.

WARNKE: According to the standards, you'd be safer.

SMITH: Now, hearing that, it would be easy to think that the European standards are safer, better, but this isn't really the case. The U.S. has a bunch of extra safety standards that the Europeans don't. For instance, in America, car makers have to design airbags to protect people who are not wearing their seatbelt. In Europe, they just assume that everyone's buckled up. These rule differences drive the car companies nuts. Every manufacturer I talked to at the auto show said, hey, put us in a room, and we can agree on one set of safety standards. And people are working on that right now, but so far, there's been very little progress. The human body may be the same wherever you go, but every country feels like it knows the best way to protect it. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.