European safety rules messing with cars in South Africa

Several of the European Union’s (EU’s) well-meaning car safety regulations have unfortunate consequences for motorists in countries outside its jurisdiction.

Among the big changes the EU approved in recent years was making nine driver assistance features mandatory for cars to receive a full five-star rating in the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP).

These rules came into effect in 2022 and required features like automatic emergency braking, automatic lane departure warnings, reverse cameras or sensors, and speed limiters.

The Euro NCAP is widely regarded as the golden standard for car safety, and many brands proudly promote their NCAP ratings as a sales tactic.

Motorists in other countries buying models sold in Europe often get cars with the same features.

That includes South Africa, which lacks the high-quality road infrastructure critical for supporting many of the EU’s compulsory features.

With far fewer sales than major markets, manufacturers have little incentive to develop custom software or designs for countries like South Africa.

While drivers can typically switch these features off manually, some options are enabled by default to earn the highest possible Euro NCAP safety ratings.

For some models, the setting will be enabled again every time you start the car.

Below are three compulsory EU safety rules for cars that can negatively impact the driving experience in South Africa and one new rule that could be of great help.


Ruining: Compulsory speed limiters or warnings

Speed limiters and warnings could not only aid in general road safety but also help motorists avoid expensive traffic fines or arrest.

However, even the most advanced cars with high-definition cameras, sophisticated sensors, and integration with navigation apps and GPS can get speed limits in certain areas wrong.

This issue is exacerbated in South Africa, as many roads have insufficient signage to indicate speed limits at regular intervals.

In addition, your car’s actual speed is often 3km/h to 5km/h slower than the speedometer shows.

South Africa’s traffic fines also only kick in when exceeding the speed limit by 10km/h, so many motorists have accustomed to driving slightly faster than the speed limit.


Ruining: Compulsory automatic lane departure and lane keeping

Automatic lane departure warnings use audible or visual warnings or vibrations on the steering wheel to alert you when you are moving out of your lane without indicating.

Automatic lane-keeping is more advanced. It physically rotates the steering wheel, normally with minute adjustments, to keep you from veering off into another.

These can be very useful with Europe’s excellent road infrastructure and lane marking.

However, many of South Africa’s municipal and regional roads are missing clear lane markings, rendering the feature useless or confusing the car’s cameras.

In addition, the prevalence of potholes often requires motorists to drive into another lane to avoid damaging their wheels or cars.

Some motorists with automatic lane keeping have also complained about their car trying to force them back into their lane when they had to intervene quickly to avoid hitting an obstacle.


Ruining: Safety-focused exteriors

Many of the enhanced safety regulations can detract significantly from aesthetics.

For example, accurate emergency braking requires large sensor boxes that stick out in the front of a car.

Some cars — like the Toyota GR86 — will be discontinued because they cannot be re-engineered to meet the criteria.

Other problematic requirements for external designs include the following:

  • Wheels cannot be exposed beyond the car’s bodywork. Manufacturers often use small plastic extensions around the wheel wells to get around this instead of redesigning widths.
  • Side-view mirrors have a minimum size.
  • Car exteriors may not have sharp edges (like on the Tesla Cybertruck)
  • Rear lights must be visible when the car’s boot is open, forcing additional lights on the bumper or inside the boot.
  • The mandatory gap between the car’s skin and hard internal components to protect pedestrians during a collision creates a longer front end.
  • Efficiency rules require more aerodynamic shapes, making many cars look very similar.
Mercedes-Benz AMG S63 with sensor box for driver assistance to the right of the badge

Helping: Bringing back buttons

One positive decision by EU automotive safety regulators is the plan to make physical buttons for certain functions mandatory starting in 2026 to achieve a five-star Euro NCAP score.

Automakers have increasingly reduced the number of buttons on the dashboard in favour of touchscreen controls — a trend started by Tesla.

In addition to creating the impression of a futuristic design through minimalism, it saves manufacturing complexity and cost.

While this is perfectly fine for managing media or navigation, some carmakers also put controls for basic and critical features like air conditioning and driving settings on the display.

The problem is that a touch display is simply not as intuitive as physical buttons and requires far more attention from the driver —taking their attention away from the road.

Swedish car publication Vi Bilägare performed real-life test which clearly showed that physical buttons in cars were much easier and faster to use than touchscreens.

Tesla driver using touchscreen. Editorial credit: Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock.com

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European safety rules messing with cars in South Africa