November 7th, 2010

Down with the deathtrap

The community of Imperial College, London, was left in shock last month by the death of one of its leading scientists, Dr Judit Nadal, in a traffic collision which has gained a higher profile than most of its kind.

The reason that this tragic incident stands out from so many others is evident from the harrowing pictures of the scene (it is up to you to Google it), which depict London’s favourite electric car, the Reva G-Wiz, cut clean in two. And no, this wasn’t a collision with a coach or HGV. The object which caused such devastating destruction was in fact a humble Skoda Octavia.

For those of you who may be wondering how a car which has the right to share road space with any other type of vehicle can display all the strength and resilience of a cardboard box, enlightenment comes in the form of classification laws. You see, according to the powers that be, the G-Wiz is not actually a car, oh no. It’s actually, and rather confusingly, termed a ‘quadricycle’.

Under government legislation, these quadricycles – which also include those little two-stroke microcar things, usually with the rear lights off a Vauxhall Corsa – are not required to go through the stringent Euro NCAP testing which is compulsory for ‘normal’ cars.

Now I’m sorry, but the lack of logic here is frankly unbelievable. Why, when these vehicles are using the same tarmac as the likes of lorries, buses, Range Rovers, and (heaven forbid) the Skoda Octavia, are they granted exemption from showing even the most basic of safety capabilities?

The warning bells have sounded before: back in 2007, gurus at the revered Transport Research Laboratory put a G-Wiz through a crash test of their own. To say that the results were disturbing would be to gravely understate matters, and the pictures of the aftermath did little to quell the feeling that buyers, lured in by the idea of doing their bit for the planet, were unnecessarily putting their lives at risk.

Three years on, and with no action taken in the meantime, it has taken a fatality to turn people’s attentions to the potential consequences of G-Wiz ownership.

Debate has circled the car from the date of its first import to these shores: Does the appeal of the G-Wiz lie in a genuine desire to tackle global warming? Or is it simply a case of eco-posturing? Is it as eco-friendly as it claims to be, all things considered? I could go on.

But of the following there can be no dispute: namely the sheer irresponsibility of endangering one’s own life with the excuse of producing a little less carbon dioxide. The fact that successive governments allow it to happen is so disgraceful as to be absurd.

I sat in a G-Wiz a couple of years ago, and still find it hard to grasp how anyone could feel safe weaving through central London betwixt bendy buses and Skodas in something which feels so flimsy.

Clearly, something needs to be done. But what?

For a start, and assuming that the G-Wiz continues to be sold in the UK, it’s essential that buyers be made aware of its classification as a quadricycle and resultant lack of safety features. Poring through the esteemed SMMT’s Electric Car Guide 2010, which, incidentally, runs to 34 pages in length, I eventually found the section headed ‘Safety’, which takes up less than a quarter of a page. The part about quadricycles takes up a mere two sentences.

GoinGreen, the company selling the G-Wiz, includes some vague information relating to safety or classification on its website – surely the first place interested punters would go to find out about such things – but no explicit mention of the car’s exemption from the usual crash testing.

In my humble opinion, though, all this should be irrelevant, because the best thing that the government can do in this situation is to ban sales, not just of the G-Wiz, but of all quadricycles. Why, in 2010, when we have companies such as Volvo continually investing huge amounts into new safety features such as blind spot warning and City Safe, can we still buy cars (and give me one good reason why they shouldn’t be classified as such) which break in half when hit by a Skoda?

We can only hope that this tragedy drives the relevant parties to act – and sharpish – to prevent this kind of thing happening again.

Ben Foulds