Cars built in Mexico have varying degrees of safety depending on where they'll be sold, and vehicles not up to safety standards are raising the accident fatality rate in the country, The Associated Press reported.
The vehicles intended to stay in Mexico or go south to the rest of Latin America have a code saying the car's basic models can lack such safety features as antilock braking systems, electronic stability control or more than two air bags, if any.
Due to United States and Europe standards, if vehicles go to either market, they must fulfill stringent safety rules by having as many as six to 10 air bags and stability controls that help on slippery roads, according to Mexico-based auto factory engineers.
People essentially pay the same price for either car, something that helps automakers like General Motors and Nissan make a greater profit, but the unsafe vehicles may be causing a rise in auto fatalities.
"We are paying for cars that are far more expensive and far less safe," said Alejandro Furas, technical director for Global New Car Assessment Program, a vehicle crash-test group. "Something is very wrong."
The Nissan Versa, made in central Aguascalientes, is an example of the price and safety difference. In Mexico, the vehicle starts at $16,000 and has two air bags and no electronic stability control system. The U.S. version of the same car has six air bags, an electronic stability control system and goes for $14,000.
Accident-related deaths increased 58 percent in a decade in Mexico, while similar fatalities in the U.S. dropped by 40 percent during the same period. In 2011, around 5,000 people died in crashes in Mexico; the death rate in the country is more than 3.5 times higher than in the U.S.
But putting stricter safety standards on Mexico's $30 billion auto industry won't be easy.
"It's a complicated subject because of the amount of money carmakers bring to this country. The economy protects them," Dr. Arturo Cervantes Trejo, director of the Mexican Health Ministry's National Accident Prevention Council, told the AP. "But there are plans, there is a strategy. We have a working group with the car industry."
Adding different features depending on the market is a common practice, according to Nissan Mexicana spokesman Herman Morfin. General Motors declined to comment.
Implementing more safety standards will likely have to come from watchdog groups and government regulators.
"Mexico has to take a good look at itself, at the problems it's facing," Furas, of Global NCAP, said. "It is selling unsafe cars to its own people, when it can be selling safe cars that it can build."