By on August 22, 2013

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The general and automotive press was buzzing in the past couple of days about Tesla’s Model S acing crash testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, following a Tesla press release claiming that the Model S is the safest car ever tested by that agency. Now, NHTSA is throwing some cold water on Tesla’s claims that the Model S earned more than five stars, the agency’s highest score. The car performed well, NHTSA says, but not off the charts as claimed by Tesla. The implication that Tesla is exaggerating the crash test results follows the company’s release of what it said were profitable financial results, though the figures did not follow generally accepted accounting procedures. NHTSA also released video of the Model S undergoing crash testing.

“The agency’s 5-Star Safety Ratings program is designed to provide consumers with information about the crash protection,” NHTSA said in a statement. “NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star ratings.”

Tesla based its bragging on how it calculated the Vehicle Safety Score data provided to manufacturers, yielding a 5.4 rating according to the company.

Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center of Auto Safety, who had a role in developing the five-star schema, told ABC News that while the Tesla Model S did perform well in the crash tests the company’s spin on the data was misleading. “No matter what, you can’t say it’s the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA.”

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66 Comments on “NHTSA Pushes Back On Tesla’s ‘Safest Car Ever’ Claims for Model S...”


  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    “No matter what, you can’t say it’s the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA.”

    So the ratings exist in meaningless vacuum divorced from how safe a car actually is? I can believe that.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      @Detroit-Iron- “So the ratings exist in meaningless vacuum divorced from how safe a car actually is?” -Not precisely, but approximately, yes.

      Standards have undoubtedly made vehicles much safer, as an engineer would say the standards have been “directionally correct”, in the way they’ve driven vehicle development.

      Some of them are fairly nonsensical, it seems to me. One example: Ralph Nader pushed for, and was successful in getting a ban on knock off hub wire wheels, and the simulated wire hubcaps designed to look like them as well. He thought they would tear pedestrians up! No one could find a shred of evidence of one case occurring anywhere, ever!
      The lawyer Nader, who does not even drive a car (!), was persuasive though, so the ban was implemented and exists today.

      In the ’70′s almost everyone stopped making convertibles because roll over standards were being proposed, which in essence would have banned that style vehicle. With motorcycles being legal, the logical question became “how can they, being much less safe in any kind of crash than a convertible, be legal while the regulation would ban the convertible style vehicle?”. In the end, the standards were not implemented, but the safety nuts still like to bring focus to a vehicles performance in a roll over.

      The perception that a strong roof means a safe car inspired Volvo to create an advertisement that showed a monster truck driving over a row of cars and crushing all or their roofs in, except, of course, the Volvo, which stood proud under the load. It turned out that they had built a steel structure inside the car. It would not have done any better than the others, as a matter of fact! It was rather embarrassing to Volvo, and raises the most important question- how many crashes involve a roll over anyway?

      • 0 avatar
        barcodescanner

        I totally believe you about Nader, but I’m wondering where I can find a reference for that information? I have some car nerd friends that were discussing this very thing (why the spinners went away), and I’d love to tell them.

        I did search Google, in case you’re muttering that under your breath. :)

        • 0 avatar
          doctor olds

          @barcodescanner- Sorry, but my knowledge is anecdotal. My father was the MVSS compliance engineer for Oldsmobile, the division with lead responsibility for safety technology, pre ’84 GM reorganization.

          I remember the cool fake spinner hubcaps being changed, probably in the ’60′s or early ’70′s. My memory is fuzzy on the specific year. My dad was responding to me asking, Why?

          This link mentions the ban occurring in the late ’60′s, though its primary topic seems to be spinning centers that rotate independently from the wheels, not the fake or real knockoff look that rotated with the wheel.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinner_(wheel)

          • 0 avatar
            JimC2

            Also, IIRC the Volvo/monster truck ad was c1992.

            There was a much earlier poster titled, “Six pillars of Volvo” (or something similar), which depicted a stack of seven 140s, roofs perfectly intact. (Both the 140 and 240 were designed with a 6x saftey factor for rollover strength, the 140 in an era when some manufacturers were dragging their feet about including seatbelts).

          • 0 avatar
            doctor olds

            @JimC2- Manufacturers didn’t so much drag their feet as customers hated seat belts!

            I spent a brief stint on the 1970 Toronado Line at Oldsmobile rolling up seat belts and retaining them with an elastic band attached to a Toronado emblem- sort of like a girls hair band. Shoulder harnesses had a holster sort of retainer that allowed them to be tucked away along the roof edge above the door. Many people left them like that, never using the belts at all.

            Since my dad was the MVSS compliance engineer, he knew that ejection from the vehicle was the number one cause of fatality and, as he used to say, “It isn’t the speed that kills. Its the sudden stop at the end!” We wore seat belts without fail!

            I recall that Ford offered seat belts first in ’56 or so for $25 or thereabouts. Not much money, anyway. Orders were so low, they cancelled availability of the “safety package”.

          • 0 avatar
            danio3834

            My ’63 Thunderbird was built without belts. I have the order book for it, and from what I can recall the belts were something like a $15 option.

          • 0 avatar
            JimC2

            @doctor olds- Fair enough. The majors were just responding to their customers and the market. Most nobody cared about that stuff.

            Nader has always been way out there, although no one can deny that he did help some things change for the better. (We’ve gone from it being perfectly OK to have little kids bouncing around in pickup truck beds to full-on super-electronic-robo-nanny-mobiles that isolate us from everything… I think we passed the happy middle ground sometime in the 1990s.)

          • 0 avatar
            tjh8402

            @ Doctor Olds – re: rollovers, they are not uncommon. I’ve only been a firefighter for just over a year in an area that isn’t prone to MVAs all the time (I can easily go weeks without running on one), and I’ve had multiple rollovers that I’ve run on. You also have to consider what the consequences and potential for severe injury and death are from a roof that collapses in a rollover; ie if the roof pillars arent supporting the weight of the car, the next thing sticking up to bear the brunt are the occupants head and spine.

          • 0 avatar
            doctor olds

            @tjh8402- I have not meant to trivialize rollovers. I believe data shows they are a very small share of vehicle crashes, though. that is based on my memory and experience.

      • 0 avatar
        wumpus

        “how many crashes involve a roll over anyway?” Probably plenty with drivers unfamiliar with SUVs (and other top heavy cars). After they’ve been driving them a few years, not so much.

        I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more than few cars in youtube race footage roll, reminding me why cars need race cages before serious racing and that I’ll probably never fit in such cars with a helmet. I think the car Jack Baruth linked the “punted video” (the rules the victimized driver whined about even pointed out that while the other driver will get a black flag, the laws of physics will punish him worse for assuming the other driver will allow himself to be shoved aside) rolled a few times.

      • 0 avatar

        Based on my experience…50%.
        I’ve been in two crashes that wrecked the vehicle I was driving.
        My first crash was when I was driving way too fast for my abilities at a young age and was in my 1972 Cutlass Supreme Convertible w/the top down-and not wearing the seatbelts.
        Going around a curve on a back country road in Georgia and had a dog run across road,jerked on wheel to avoid it,ran off road and when turned to get back on the lack of curb helped lift my right wheels off the ground. Frantically trying to steer back and went off into cornfield where the car rolled once and landed on it’s wheels.(Distinctly remember thinking at the time how many times was it going to roll.)
        Windows were rolled down and my only injuries were a slightly stiff neck and a scrapped up right elbow where I had a death-grip on the high center glovebox with my right arm.
        Windshield was okay on my side but had bent down to level of headrest on passengers side. Dang good windshield,cracked but didn’t shatter.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      “So the ratings exist in meaningless vacuum divorced from how safe a car actually is? I can believe that.”

      I don’t interpret it that way. Considering “NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star ratings,” my interpretation is that NHTSA considers all 5-star results the same, regardless of specific score within the rating. Thus, Tesla cannot claim that they are superior (safer) than other 5-star recipients. However, IMO, they can still claim to be the safest, but they are in a tie for first with all other 5-star recipients.

      If the information reported here is in fact representative of the NHTSA’s response, this is less a pushback than an “everyone just calm down” response. They aren’t saying Tesla is wrong; they are just saying not to put words in NHTSA’s mouth.

      • 0 avatar
        pragmatist

        It has to be remembered that tests are only standardized approximations of real life. They are a useful tool but are not absolute reality.

        Tests need to approximate real conditions (which hopefully they do) but also must be repeatable and consistent. Those requirements themselves mean that the tests must be simplified and somewhat arbitrary.

        They are still valuable, but does it mean that a 5.0 star is safer than a 4.8? Not necessarily, but they are in the same ballpark and I think this is what the NHTSA was trying to say.

      • 0 avatar
        CH1

        Ditlow’s larger point is that the NHTSA tests are only a small part of the puzzle.

        Each crash test represents a very specific set of circumstances. Change any of the parameters (speed, angle, impact location, type of barrier/object, occupant type and location, etc.,) and you can get quite different results. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that some vehicles do well on the NHTSA full-frontal test but poorly on the IIHS small overlap test.

        Crash tests don’t address the complexities often present in real-world accidents, such as a T-bone followed by a head-on collision. Finally, the NHTSA tests barely scratch the surface of preventative safety.

        So there’s an enormous difference between NHTSA test scores and overall safety. At the same time, it’s obviously better to have information from a limited set of scenarios rather than no information at all.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Oh snap.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Telsa does it again. I had reserved comment because Tesla PR as a long history of having to walk back press releases after over stating things. It doesn’t change the fact the results were impressive, but I’m not surprised the NHTSA has said, “wait one minute.”

    But just like red circles in a row, stars on a website, or 90 day satisfaction – it all is just a point of data of a large data set all car buyers should consider – but one could point out flaws with every methodology.

    [INSERT ANGRY DEFENSE OF RED CIRCLES IN A ROW HERE]

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I suspect that Tesla deserves accolades for building a car that is structurally very safe. At the same time, ergonomically it may well be the worst car on the market, meaning that testing the safety features is more likely than in cars that do a better job of incorporating human factors. They’ve certainly been in some absurd accidents for such a scarce vehicle.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “what it said were profitable financial results, though the figures did not follow generally accepted accounting procedures”

    On a GAAP basis, Tesla earned a “gross profit” last quarter.

    But a “gross profit” only accounts for “costs of goods sold,” the costs directly related to producing the goods. It doesn’t account for SG&A (overhead), R&D, interest expense or tax liability.

    Tesla has produced operating losses all year. Its first quarter “profit” was due entirely to a one-time accounting charge related to the DOE loan warrants. Even with the ZEV credits, Tesla would have reported a loss were it not for the treatment of the warrants.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Goes to show how Tesla isn’t afraid to fudge the story a bit to aggrandize their business in multiple aspects. Many people are buying into it, people want to root for the underdog, but I think it would be healthy to remain skeptical.

    Not to say the Model S isn’t a great or safe car, but when a company is a bit too generous with their claims, whether financial or product performance, one can’t help but wonder what’s really going on behind the scenes.

  • avatar
    jmo

    “No matter what, you can’t say it’s the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA.”

    What does that mean? The best overall test score would mean the safest – at least in terms of NHTSA metrics…right?

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      I think what it means is that out in the real world, who knows what will happen. Like the Jeeps NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall on the basis that they were “less safe” than other vehicles due to a slightly higher fatality rate than some other vehicles, even though they met or exceeded the standards of the day.

      So in short, I believe they’re leaving the door open to the fact that the Model S may not prove to be the safest out in the real world, even though the crash test results were better than other cars.

  • avatar
    Stumpaster

    WHAT-EVER! Look at that video – I haven’t seen too many cars that can smack the wall and have the aft part of the front fenders, a-pillars and roof sheeting totally intact. The front wheels didn’t seem to move aft more than 3 inches – safe feet. Bravo, Tesla!

    • 0 avatar
      SayMyName

      Agreed. And Ditlow’s witless statement is nothing more than Doublespeak (the comment below comparing this to, “you didn’t win the race, it’s just that everyone else lost” is fitting.)

      Tesla’s response to NHTSA’s hissy fit should be along the lines of, “It’s curious that we have greater faith in the results of your own testing methodology than you do.” And leave it at that.

    • 0 avatar
      Urlik

      Actually as impressivie as it looks, it doesn’t indicate it’s safer. I can make a car that is almost a solid block of steel up front so it seems to take virtually no damage but the forces that would make it to the occupants might make it a fatal crash still.

      • 0 avatar
        Beerboy12

        The purpose of NHTSA’s full frontal test is to test impact on the onoccupents. This to differentiate from the IIHS’s offset test that tests body integrity and occupant impact. The NHTSA would not have awarded 5 stars if the occupants could be turned to pulp from the crash…

  • avatar
    gslippy

    “No matter what, you can’t say it’s the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA.”

    What Mr. Ditlow means is that some other testing agency may have found a safer car, just not NHTSA. He must be an engineer who hates absolutes.

    I’d like to know what car did better, and what agency tested it.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Edit – this ended up in the wrong place for some reason.

      @Onus

      I have an accounting degree – even within GAAP you can spin the numbers every which way, and as long as your auditor signs off on it you are just fine. Of course, occasionally the auditor is complicit in this, and you end up with an Enron/Arthur Anderson situation…

      The Tesla is certainly a safe car. Is it safer than other cars in its price range in the real world? S-Class, 7, A8? I doubt it. Then there is the reality that the tests are NOT the real world – famous example being the Saab NG900, which did fairly poorly in some of the tests but had a STUNNING real world record.

  • avatar
    Onus

    I like the mention GAAP in the article. The last time we had something about Tesla I was called an idiot when I mentioned that. Glad to see some things change around here.

    I may not be an accounting major but, i did take accounting in college last semester, and while GAAP isn’t perfect it does a halfway decent job and allows a level of comparability. If rules are made up, how are you to compare two companies? You can’t directly.

    Plus the IRS does care about non GAAP numbers. They tax you on GAAP numbers.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      Not complying with GAAP should not be taken to mean the numbers are invalid.

      GM business performance reports have long had the notation that some parts were not compliant simply because certain costs were not allocated to specific business units, but considered at the corporate level. The numbers were fine. The bottom line numbers for the corporation were GAAP compliant.

      I am not speaking to the validity of Tesla numbers, just caution on assuming too much.

      • 0 avatar
        Onus

        I agree.

        Reading non GAAP numbers should be done with caution, a level i don’t fell comfortable with myself.

        • 0 avatar
          suspekt

          GAAP is rather meaningless if you want to understand the true performance of any business. It is a very useful tool for ensuring consistency and comparability of financial results but in terms of assessing business performance, I would rather analyze cash-flow, margins, DSO, throughput, etc…..

          • 0 avatar
            doctor olds

            GAAP stands for “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”. It is not a tool in itself.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            GAAP is a methodology for preparing accounting. It is not intended to provide every bit of information that is useful for analyzing a business.

            There are GAAP cash flow statements.

            One can calculate margins using GAAP. That’s effectively how a “gross profit” is determined.

            There’s nothing that prevents one from calculating inventories and throughput while using GAAP.

            The problem is that Tesla and the media were very excited to report that the company had earned a “profit.” But “profit” in accounting terms does not necessarily match how laypeople use the term “profit.”

            Last quarter, Tesla earned a gross profit,” but that isn’t really a profit. The average person reading this would think of “profit” as being something similar to “net profit”, and on that basis, Tesla produced a loss.

            Bottom line: Tesla is taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge of accounting and finance to oversell its results.

          • 0 avatar
            ect

            doctor olds, to your point, when I was in the corporate world, GAAP stood for “whatever we can talk the auditors into signing off on”.

            Which is why investment banks and others pay analysts to look closely into GAAP numbers to try to figure out what the real results are. And, more importantly, what the real future holds.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    Rather than going with the “under promise and over deliver” school of thought it would seem Tesla is going with the tried and true General Motors practice of overhyping every detail of there product. The car is safe…got it. Why inflate the results.

    I am rooting for Tesla which is why I find this troubling since this sort of thing really didn’t do GM any favors in the long run. Just build good product, advertise it as such (don’t inflate the truth) and they will come.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      The only possible inflation of the truth is whether the S is the safest car ever, or just the safest car tested by the NHTSA.

      Nobody has provided evidence to dispute this claim by Tesla.

  • avatar
    ash78

    Perhaps the bigger explanation is that “yes, the Tesla did get the highest composite score, but the statistical differences (and/or error) within the 5-star range is not meaningful”

    In other words, it might not be the safest car ever test, just the highest scoring one, as they stated. So implicitly they’re just saying the scores are not absolute — a 5.4 isn’t necessarily any safer than a 5.3 because the test isn’t accurate enough to know.

  • avatar
    tced2

    OK, I’ll bite,
    What is “the safest car NHTSA has ever tested”?

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      There are probably a few ways to look at it, but one might figure it to be the vehicle with the lowest amount of fatalities per X miles driven or per given test group.

      For example the drivers of a given model may tend to be complete asshats, cut off semi trucks, and get run over. Through no fault of it’s own, that vehicle may be considered less safe than the next statistically because more people actually die in it.

      I think that’s that Ditlow is getting at here, while the car tested well in the lab, out in the real world a high number of Teslas might end up off a cliff on in flaming highway wreckage which would create poor fatality statistics.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        What Danio said.

        The Model S may be electric, but it’s still seriously fast (0-60 in under five seconds). Safe to assume this is one of those cars whose capabilities will outmatch the abilities of most drivers. That tends to lead to a lot of wrecks.

  • avatar

    Just because the NHTSA says that “safest car ever” claims cannot be made off of the current data doesn’t necessarily mean that the Model S isn’t the safest car ever. We just don’t know either way… yet. Every 3 years, the IIHS releases fatality rate data, deaths per 1 million vehicles. I believe that data is usually 1-2 years old by the time it is released in a report. I will be interesting to see how the Model S fares. I believe the number for the Model S will be zero deaths.

    Supposedly, no one has ever died in a Tesla Roadster accident, either, though the last information I saw on that is old.

    Overall, fatality rates are going down by leaps and bounds, proving that new safety requirements have a purpose, but there are still some vehicles that have surprisingly poor results out in the real world. Below is a link to the last report, published in 2011. It doesn’t include every single production vehicle, and I don’t know why that is.

    http://www.iihs.org/externaldata/srdata/docs/sr4605.pdf

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      There are not enough Teslas out there to make meaningful comparisons. It’s like drunk driving death statistics from Wyoming – one year they had a 300% increase in deaths or some such – they went from 1 to 3! The sample size is too small to matter.

    • 0 avatar
      Urlik

      I wonder how this would do in the IIHS’ small overlap test. Looking at the chassis pictures available online, I have the feeling it wouldn’t impress.

      • 0 avatar

        I can’t say that it will impress, but the one story I could find of a real world small overlap head on accident was between a Model S and a 2012 Honda Accord, the Accord driver/passenger died at the scene, Tesla driver had minor injuries. One accident is definitely too small to conclude much, but the Tesla didn’t disintegrate, either.

        • 0 avatar
          Kenmore

          Latest reports I could find of that Tesla vs. Accord crash agree that the Tesla crossed the center line. Killed two guys in the Accord.

          So we can be reassured that an asshat in a Tesla is vouchsafed against the appliance driving yeomanry.

          Excellent reason to drive trucks if Teslas become numerous.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “No matter what, you can’t say it’s the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA.”

    Sort of like…

    “You can’t say that you won the race, just that you didn’t lose to anyone else.”

    C’mon! If it’s the SAFEST car you’ve tested (highest scores), and it’s understood we’re all talking about NHTSA testing, not hairdryers or blenders or Consumer Reports, then it wins.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      I don’t think Ditlow would want to be bound to a statement like that when someone finally does die in a Model S.

    • 0 avatar
      doctor olds

      @CoreyDL- it is not at all like winning a race. It is more like getting a gold star on your report card.

      The winner of this race can be determined only after years of actual performance in the field, not by variable and somewhat arbitrary methodology that attempts to measure and rank test performance.

      I can assure you that test performance is not the same as real world performance. Anyone in the vehicle validation business knows that. Every maker has warranty, product liability claims, lawsuits, all sorts of evidence of failure in the real world.

      None of them were planned, or seen in the design and extensive testing that precedes release to production.

      Tesla can say at this time that they had great test scores. They can not say they have the “safest” vehicle. Time will tell how it performs in the real world.

  • avatar
    jz78817

    does any of this bickering really matter? Can’t we just agree Tesla did a fine job on the Model S and be done with it?

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    If the car received the highest score ever, then yes, it’s fudging a bit to say it’s the safest car ever, but the claim is not without merit. And getting the best score ever truly is an achievement they should be able to crow about.

    Whatever…I want one. In metallic black.

  • avatar
    GripperDon

    IF it was equipped with Inflatable seatbelts front and rear then I would believe their claims !

  • avatar
    turbosaab

    My guess: NHTSA is still pissed that the Tesla broke their test machine.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    The NHTSA is just mad at Tesla for breaking their roof-crushing machine.

  • avatar
    BigOlds

    The only definitive statement that can be made is that the Model S scored the highest on the test. This does not make it the safest car, any more than scoring the highest on an IQ test does not make you the smartest. Or most knowledgeable. Do these things correlate? Absolutely. Is it safe to assume that the Model S is a very safe car, relative to other cars? Definitely. I make more money than my brother. It does not mean that I have more education than he.

    The above distinctions, and their reasons & implications should be apparent to anyone who has completed a basic science course.

    The only way you could claim it to be the safest car is if you validated that the test score does in fact correlate precisely with real-world results.

    And no, this does not mean that the test is useless. I think you will find that people who score higher on IQ test are generally smarter than those who don’t. Just not in all cases and all circumstances.

  • avatar
    BigOldChryslers

    This is probably a smart PR move by Tesla. Their “safest car” claim made headlines. NHTSA’s rebuttal will be a footnote, and a lot of people that read it will conclude, “You admit it got the highest scores, so it IS the safest vehicle! Duh!” even though there is a technical distinction, as already discussed here.

  • avatar
    MarquisDeSolder

    Everyone seems to overlook this: Per NHTSA’s website: “frontal crash test results…reflect a crash between vehicles from the same weight class +/- 250 Lbs.” What I take this to mean is that a “5 star” subcompact which weights 2800Lbs is not as safe as a “5 star” 4000lb luxo barge, since you will not be colliding with only equivalent weight vehicles on the road! So, the Tesla claim that the Model S is ‘the safest car’ really only applies to vehicles in its weight class.

    • 0 avatar

      Good point. If we were looking at a test against a Ford F350 loaded to the hilt with bricks, the results might be a bit ugly.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      NHTSA doesn’t crash test most luxury sedans, due to their low sales volumes and expense.

      It’s a bit much for Tesla to brag about the NHTSA crash test results of the Model S when most of its rivals haven’t been tested. A comparison requires at least two items that can be compared to each other.

  • avatar
    Grumpy

    You guys have too much time on your hands. I find all this crap about Tesla crash testing claims more or less irrelevant–how can a car that pretty much explodes and burns to the ground if you get it wet, be the safest car made?

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    @Grumpy

    You’re probably thinking of Fiskers.

    Strange, ’cause I’ve gotten their scissors wet and nothing happened.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Here is a really cool interactive map on road accidents. I hope it works. It appears the US could use more safety.

    http://roadskillmap.com/#15.029685756555674,-36.03515625,3


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