Car Crash Brexit – How the UK is set to become a second-hand dealer in EU automotive regulation

The British played a significant unsung role in advancing EU car safety regulations. But – just as the industry moves towards greater innovation – Britain wants to take a back seat.

Dave Ward
10 July 2018

Image: Crash test - in pre 98 models, the dummies if human would have all died. Credit: NCAP 

Regulation is too often seen as inherently boring. But today tens of thousands of people owe their lives to good European regulation imposed against the wishes of the motor industry in 1998. Regulation is the anvil of life and death outcomes. It is at least as important as ownership – its consequences more widely relevant across our entire social and economic experience.

Anthony Barnett’s article for openDemocracy – on the significance of regulation as a fourth domain of power and authority alongside the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, and how Brexit will be shaped by it – is welcome. If ‘Take back control’ was Brexit’s major selling point, then voters will learn this applies to their chances of survival in road crashes and the quality of the air they breathe. Yet, outside the Single Market, Britain will become just a follower of European Union (EU) vehicle safety and emission standards. This is the reality.

The irony is that one of the UK’s most successful unsung achievements has been the role the British played in advancing EU consumer protection and public health. The adoption twenty years ago of new crash test standards has halved the number of car occupant deaths. This dramatic improvement in road safety is a success story of UK engagement in the Single Market led by British research and campaigners. Their actions have significantly reduced road deaths not just in the UK but across the EU.

In the mid 1990’s over 45,000 people were killed annually in road crashes across the EU. Outdated 1970s crash test regulations were in force, leaving vital safety features like air bags as optional extras. Eventually, in 1995, it was agreed to upgrade EU vehicle safety standards. But, due to intense industry pressure, the European Commission’s original proposals barely increased the stringency of the requirements at all. Tougher and more realistic front and side impact tests were relegated to a vague ‘second stage’, despite the fact that the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) had shown that thousands of deaths could be avoided if the stronger and more realistic crash tests were applied.

The opportunity for a radical improvement in these scandalously weak proposals came through the new powers given to the European Parliament to amend draft legislation, thanks to the Maastricht Treaty. The lead ‘rapporteur’ on the crash test legislation was the then Labour MEP for Tyne and Wear, Alan Donnelly. He tabled amendments based on TRL’s research which were supported by a pan European grass roots campaign organised by consumer and safety groups. They called for the immediate adoption of the tougher crash tests. The Parliament unanimously adopted Donnelly’s amendments and the new much more stringent crash test standards entered into force from October 1998. Twenty years on and the number of lives lost in crashes has dropped to 25,000 with improved car occupant safety the single most significant factor in this huge improvement in EU road safety survival, as this shocking video of a dummy crash test shows.

This experience shows how it is possible to achieve a big win for the public interest in the Single Market. The industry lobby was defeated because the UK had shared sovereignty over regulations with other EU governments and the European Parliament. Post-Brexit, acting alone, it will be far harder for this country to similarly challenge the multinational lobbying power of the automotive industry.

‘Not so’ according to Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, who claims there are international regulatory systems that we can rely on after leaving the EU. In her Mansion House speech last March, she argued that many EU product rules “are underpinned by international standards set by non-EU bodies of which we will remain a member – such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which sets vehicle safety standards”. By going global, Mrs May implies Britain has nothing to lose. But her argument displays woeful ignorance of the reality of rule setting in the UNECE which is dominated by one large block of nations – you’ve guessed it, the EU.

The UNECE’s World Forum for Harmonisation for Vehicle Regulations based in Geneva is an important global standard setting body. Today, 54 governments are parties to an international agreement for ‘type approval’ regulations that are critical to the safety performance of vehicles on our roads. At its meetings in Geneva about 38 governments usually attend including EU Member States, but with a crucial difference; the EU vote together as a block of 28 countries. Decisions in the World Forum require a four-fifths majority and this is easily managed by the EU, which almost invariably secures the result it wants. So Theresa May got it backwards. It is EU decision-making that underpins the adoption of UNECE regulations and not the other way around. So, outside the EU, even in the UNECE, the UK will be effectively just a rule-taker.

This relegation to the second division in automotive regulations will have serious consequences for British consumers. Dieselgate exposed the lengths to which vehicle manufacturers are prepared to go to avoid compliance with regulations to protect air quality. Volkswagen’s blatant cheating of US diesel emission standards also exposed weakness in the EU’s regulatory system. Fundamentally, this was caused by a policy bias in favour of diesel technology due to its usually higher levels of fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions compared with petrol engines. The air quality issue of higher diesel emissions of nitrogen oxides were marginalised. Now, much too late, tougher standards together with a more robust type approval system are being applied; with the EU’s system exposed as imperfect and still very liable to corporate influence.

In leaving the EU’s system of vehicle regulation, however, UK citizens are unlikely to find themselves in a stronger position vis a vis the motor industry’s corporate power. Our voice in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament will not be heard and our influence gone. This will have profound implications for the interests of the public and our automotive industry. The Government is wrong to think that membership of the UNECE can side step the negative impact of Brexit. We will be less influential there, following rather than leading discussions in Geneva about future regulations. We will also be unable to participate in the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation that is closely related to the automotive regulatory process. This will harm our universities, research laboratories, and automotive suppliers. At a time of great innovation and change in vehicle technologies this is extraordinarily short-sighted.

To sort out this Brexit mess, it is time that reality and a hard-headed assessment of the UK’s national interest should take precedence over the vague assurances offered by Theresa May. To retain a strong influence in global automotive policy making we need to remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. This should be negotiated with a specific agreement to maintain UK participation in motor vehicle policy-making both in Brussels at the EU and in Geneva at the UNECE. That is the way for us to keep some ownership over a rule-making process that is vital for our vehicle manufacturing industry, environmental protection, and the safety of millions of us using our roads.

And see David Ward's article here on pedestrian safety standards and any US/UK trade deal

David Ward is Secretary General of the Global New Car Assessment Programme. He writes in a personal capacity.

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