By on June 14, 2007

overload2.jpgIt’s easy to get caught up in Inside Baseball speculation about the future of international automotive imports. Will a Chinese-made subcompact take the Western world by storm, or will Renault’s Integrated Manufacturing System (RIMS) venture in India eventually sate the industrialized world’s insatiable appetite for small, cheap, frugal cars? Meanwhile, we hear little or nothing about traffic flowing the other way: the millions of used cars flooding into the third world from developed nations. The dirty truth about this trade is just that: the vast majority of these cars are pollution-spewing death traps. 

There’s a huge and thriving third world market for worn-out vehicles: cars, trucks, buses and commercial vehicles that don’t have a hope in Hell of passing a safety or emissions test. The business exists on the margins of society, run by criminal syndicates, dubious exporters and tens of thousands of desperate individuals. Participants congregate in bazaars on the borders between developed countries and their less fortunate neighbors. 

Writing in Der Spiegel magazine, Eric Wiedermann described one corner of the international traffic in cheap and cheerless vehicles. Down by Germany’s Hamburg train station, in an enormous space divided by barbed wire-topped mobile fences, Wiedermann found “economic immigrants” buying and selling broken down cars that had never seen better days. He also found violence, deception and intimidation.   

“With a little luck, a dealer can earn €300 to €400 selling a car that's considered scrap in Germany," Wiedermann writes. “It’s not much, but — should the seller come from, say, Chechnya — it's enough to feed his family for a half a year. But the potential profits are radically out of proportion with the risks involved.”

The dealers perpetuating this seedy souk of spent metal sell an average clapped-out European-spec sedan for €500. Thanks to a ready market in the Caucasus and the Orient, garbage trucks and hearses fetch a small premium. Dealers load the vehicles onto trucks bound for Africa and Eastern Europe, where safety and emission standards either don’t exist or can’t withstand the persuasive force of discreet monetary donations.

If you’ve traveled to a third world country, you’ve seen the end result of these down market dealings: hundreds of thousands of decrepit vehicles, pedal-to-the-metal, belching toxic wastes, with passengers and goods filling every available automotive orifice and covering every available surface.

These tired, overworked, over-loaded, poorly maintained, air-fouling beasts of burden are driven on horrific roads by inadequately trained drivers with negligible police oversight. It ain’t pretty, and it ain’t safe. The ensuing carnage is as gruesome and pervasive as you’d expect.

The Global Road Safety Partnership reckons that 1.2m people die in automobile-related accidents per year. Some 50m are injured. More than eighty-five percent of these road traffic deaths and injuries occur in low income and middle income countries, even though they only account for 40 percent of the world's motor vehicles. According to the World Health Organization, more African children die from road crashes than the HIV/AIDS virus.

Obviously, the sale of millions of unsafe vehicles to developing countries is only one part of this automotive epidemic. But it's a big part, and nobody’s doing a damn thing about it.

Reducing the damage caused by the international trade in dirty, unsafe used cars would require tough action from both sides of the equation. Countries exporting automotive death traps must dictate that any car within its borders that fails to pass its safety or emission test must either be brought up to scratch or sent to a licensed recycling facility. On the consumer side, countries importing these deadly cars must create and enforce rigorous vehicle safety and emissions legislation.

Yeah right. And while they’re at it, they should eliminate ALL government corruption. Luckily, there is some good news on the horizon…

The India Times reports UK-based Manheim Auctions and Japan’s Gulliver International are opening up shop on the Indian subcontinent. Both global used car giants plan to import a large number of properly inspected used cars into India. And no wonder. The Society of Automobile Manufacturers in India (SIAM) estimates that India’s used car market sells 1m units per year. That tally is expected to grow exponentially in the decade ahead. 

The foreign companies’ ambitions are also fueled by the fact that only 20 to 25 percent of India’s used car market is “organized,” as compared to 90 percent of markets such as The United States, Great Britain and Western Europe. The same stat holds true for other relatively undeveloped world markets.

In other words, it’s only a matter of time before large scale legal enterprises replace the patchwork of “entrepreneurs” feeding the burgeoning market for used cars in developing nations. Meanwhile, unless countries on the supply side take action, hundreds of thousands of third world motorists and pedestrians will die in or around our carelessly abandoned vehicles.

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67 Comments on “The Truth About The International Used Car Trade...”

  • avatar

    Just how old and outdated and unsafe are these really?
    Most anything US, Euro, or Japanese from the mid 70s onward has catalysts with electronic FI by the mid 80s. And airbags were widespread 15 years ago.

    This story makes it sound like a tsunami of mid 60s vehicles has been “unleashed” on the 3rd world.

  • avatar

    indi500fan: Exactly. Again: no matter what the model year of their manufacturer, the majority of these vehicles are considered scrap in their home country (they can't pass the emissions or safety tests). So don't expect those cats or air bags to function– even if they haven't been removed.

  • avatar

    Thanks for writing this — it is an important issue and took courage to post here. It certainly poses the opposite side of the coin to the reviews of shiny new Porsches anfd Infinitis we are used to reading.

    Unfortunately, this is one of those things that do-gooders look at and try to legislate away, typically without impact. The reason that developing nations use so many unsafe, polluting vehicles is that they can’t afford better. Legislating the unsafe polluters away will only increase corrunption or deny these countries the vehicles they need to get goods to market and people to their jobs.

    Sadly, the best fix may simply be economic development. If you look at where countries like South Korea have come in the last generation, you see the example.

  • avatar

    Ironic how Hollywood, American Idol, the US Govt, etc., are all focusing their resources on fighting AIDS in Africa. Meanwhile, their used bimmers and benz’s are killing more African children than those AIDS-fighting donations are saving.

    Get Angelina and Seacrest on the phone!

  • avatar

    I live in the USA, what people do in countries that are not America is not my business — provided that their actions don’t involve me.

    “Altruism is the most mendacious form of egoism.”

    — Friedrich Nietzsche

  • avatar

    Dear poor person in the third world,
    We know you desperately need or want a car, any car, so that you may find work, feed your family, or flee for you life, but we rich Westerners don’t think that’s safe for you. We’re sure you seen how unsafe and unreliable these old cars are by observing the thousands in your country and littering the roadside roadside , yet you continue to think the risks are worth it. We know your situation better than you so we will tell you what’s best for you.

    Someone who doesn’t have to worry about famine, plague, or bandits

  • avatar


    Thanks for that editorial, very different from the usual articles in car mags. I agree with Sean here, there is little other solution than economic development to address the issue.
    One possible exception: have manufacturers develop the low end of the market by building cheap cars. Anything new should be better than the heaps I saw in Algeria. The Renault Logan is a 1st effort (but is still out of reach of people in poorer countries).

    Skor: I strongly disagree with you here. While we may not be able or willing to do anything, being aware of what happens in the world leads to 2 things:
    – more ability to react when those “actions” suddenly involve us
    – more knowledge of the world, i.e. more intelligence, and a better grasp at international politics, which obviously involve us.

    Hiding behind a fence will not solve any issues, especially in the smaller world in which we now live and where almost everything has repercussions elsewhere.

  • avatar

    AKM, I’m not hiding behind anything. I’m not suggesting that the USA should establish an Enver Hoxha style regime. It’s not my business to lecture anyone outside the USA about anything. If some guy from Moldova wants to buy my 76 Maverick, that’s between him and me and no one else. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, I assume that people are adults, irrespective of where they were born, and I don’t questions their motives.

  • avatar

    Dear poor person in the third world,
    We know you desperately need or want a car, any car, so that you may find work, feed your family, or flee for you life, but we rich Westerners don’t think that’s safe for you. We’re sure you seen how unsafe and unreliable these old cars are by observing the thousands in your country and littering the roadside roadside , yet you continue to think the risks are worth it. We know your situation better than you so we will tell you what’s best for you.

    Someone who doesn’t have to worry about famine, plague, or bandits

    Hear, hear. I have seen first-hand that in some nations people (including children and the elderly) walk for hours to the nearest water supply and CARRY jugs home to meet their family’s water needs. The nearest medical care can be 30 miles away or more. These jalopies can be the difference between life and death.

    It is arrogant for us to think that only we can understand the risks of driving these cars. Poor people know a thing or two about survival and tradeoffs.

  • avatar

    an old car beats no car

  • avatar

    Brownie and Skor,
    I certainly understand the point that there are times when we Americans need to get off the soapbox and let other nations determine their own fates.

    However, whether you accept global warming or not (and I DON’T want to start that argument here), you could recognize that there are externalities caused by one nation that impact another. Pollution created by one nation reduces the quality of life for another as wind and water carry that pollution across borders.

  • avatar


    While I’m all about minimal government intrusion in human activity, I believe Western society must take responsibility for the safety of the products that flow from our economies to the so-called Third World.

    Would you be in favor of allowing these countries to buy other types of hazardous hand-me-downs? Food? Medical supplies? Building materials?

    Try to keep in mind that the 1.2m figure quoted in this article is most likely a vast underestimate of the carnage, especially on the African continent, where accident data is completely unreliable.

    We are culpable.

  • avatar

    I agree with the sentiments of Cowbell and brownie here. I would also like to point out that of the three jurisdictions in the US that I’ve had the pleasure of registering cars in, only one has had anything resembling the sort of safety inspections that Robert is alluding to. In Nebraska (where I lived for 3 years), there is no emissions check, and the vehicle inspection was simply a check to match the VIN on the title to the VINs on the car. They didn’t check so much as the brake lights and turn signals, yet alone airbags and crashworthiness. In Ohio (where I lived for 18 years), some counties had emissions checks; others didn’t. Mine didn’t. No real safety check either, although they did check the turn signals, brake lights, and gave the car a visual once-over. Requiring safety and emissions inspections for vehicles imported into third world countries would be going above and beyond what’s required in (I’m guessing) most places in the US not bordering an ocean.

  • avatar

    AKM, I’m not hiding behind anything. I’m not suggesting that the USA should establish an Enver Hoxha style regime. It’s not my business to lecture anyone outside the USA about anything. If some guy from Moldova wants to buy my 76 Maverick, that’s between him and me and no one else. Unless there is evidence to the contrary, I assume that people are adults, irrespective of where they were born, and I don’t questions their motives.

    Skor, Hope i did not offend you. It was certainly not my point.
    In regard to this op-ed, I make a clear difference between intervening and “force” people in other countries to do what we want, and be concerned with the issue. Whether we can/want to do something about it or not, it seems to me that we should be informed about it, and Robert is doing a great job at pointing out the issue.

    As I mentioned, while it would be stupid to block exports of cars to developing countries, this whole mess may hold lessons for the future. While fixing those cars between sending them over is hopeless, the development by car companies of cheap world cars could be a step in the right direction.
    Another form of aid would be to send mechanics and parts to teach people how to fix their cars, the same way the developed world sends doctors and teachers.

  • avatar

    AKM: “Another form of aid would be to send mechanics and parts to teach people how to fix their cars, the same way the developed world sends doctors and teachers.”

    I love it!
    – Peace Corps for Mechanics,
    – Jiffylubers without Borders
    – The Red Wrench

  • avatar

    The mere fact that more African children die in traffic accidents than from AIDS doesn’t mean efforts to fight that epidemic are foolish. Just because after several years of the issue being brought up we have every phony in Hollywood getting on board doesn’t make a problem unworthy of effort.

    More people die in traffic accidents worldwide than die from AIDS or cancer or heart disease. But we’re not going shut off research money on cancer.

    Skor, you can pretend America exists in a vacuum, but this isn’t the 1930s. The isolationists lost that battle a long time ago. We don’t have to police anything outside of our borders to address the issue. Neither does Germany nor any other EU country. They simply have to tighten things on their side of the line, RF said in his editorial.

  • avatar

    Yep, for every action there is a reation..

    Take the affordable cars away from these poor people and save some lives due to safety problems.

    However, it’ll probably have many unexpexted negative impacts on their lives.

    Without cheap transportation, they’ll have an even more difficult time becoming part of the developed world.

  • avatar

    I’m about as liberal as you’re going to find and government intervention bothers me not at all as long as it aims towards some social good and I’m glad that you brought our attention to this but…

    I’ve lived overseas and, many times, seen families of 5 on a single 80cc motorcycle. An acquaintance reported having seen 8 people riding a motorcycle of that class. And that was in Iran, a relatively well-developed 3rd World Country, with a fair amount of oil cash and much flatter income distribution than, say, Nigeria, and its own domestic auto production.

    Until LDCs reach a pretty fair level of economic development, I don’t see where you’ll make much headway on this issue.

    People in the LDC’s need education and a lot of other basics before we worry too much about personal transportation. A program to train auto mechanics might do some good. That would help keep the better cars on the road longer. How much capital would it take to build up domestic bicycle industries in some LDCs?

  • avatar

    I saw a show recently on The Road of Death in Bolivia. The host of the show was traveling a a fairly capable Land Rover. He interviewed locals that travel the road, and some of the vehicles were down-right scary.

    One shop was working on a converted Toyota 4-runner and didn’t have the parts to replace a broken suspension link. The mechanic wrapped the broken ball joint in an inner tube and sent the customer on his way.

    He claimed that the customer would be back with the repair part, but juding by the condition of the rest of the vehicle, I doubt it.


  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    It would be nice to send over reconditioned used cars to third world nations but the fact is that nobody will take care of them afterwards, there’s no money for proper upkeep, there’s no driver training in place and nobody wears seatbelts.

    (this is what I’ve seen in old beaters in India)

    From Princess Diana to those people in the picture above, getting the entire world to simply buckle up is the easiest and most effective way to reduce casualties.

  • avatar

    Cars sent away because of safety regulations etc? how come i still see beaters that are held together with paint belching out fumes on our roads in the US? How come these vehicles are allowed here and not there. Lets look closer to home before passing judgment on other nations.

  • avatar

    I’m going to have to go with Cowbell and others on this. Though the article makes some great points, it is easy and perhaps premature to judge other world’s by our own leather-clad safety cage standards. I lived off US 59 in South Texas for many years and there was a constant stream of small trucks, mini-vans, and school busses always in convoy and in tow headed to Laredo. Most looked like well-used cars, but they didn’t look as though they were on their last leg, though that’s hard to judge.

  • avatar

    Regarding the 1.2MM figure quoted in this article, there are many questions you should ask yourselves:

    1) How many of those fatalities are pedestrians? (pedestrian fatalities would not be significantly reduced by having safer or less poluting cars)

    2) How many actual passenger fatalities could be reduced by having safer cars? (I could be wrong, but I believe that in the US fatality reductions related to safety equipment have been marginal since the introduction of safety belts)

    3) How many fatalities are related to poor enforcement or lack of traffic laws, not vehicle safety?

    4) How should all of this be weighed against lives saved and quality of life improved by having access to automobiles?

    Seriously, when I was traveling in Ethiopia I got an appreciation for what an important piece of infrastructure the automobile is. We take it for granted. Animals and pedestrians on roads (another underrated piece of infrastructure) outnumbered pedestrians by at least 100 to 1. Cars and trucks are an unimaginable luxury! People who are lucky enough to have one routinely pick up hitchhikers – it’s the only humane thing to do when the alternative to a 10 minute drive is a 2 hour walk.

    And bicycles? Are you serious? I don’t think everyone here appreciates the scope of the infrastructure problem in these countries. We’re not talking about people commuting to work or picking up some vegetables to make dinner that night. People WALK for hours to get their water for a week, and then they CARRY it home on their backs for hours again. They WALK for hours to the weekly market, where merchants have WALKED for days to sell their wares, and then the WALK for hours home again. Wealth is still measured in land and cattle. There is no public transportation to speak of, only a handful of paved roads exist in the whole country, running water is a fantasy, the prospect of famine and drought hang in the air every week of every year, and we’re telling them they should be worried about car accidents and smog? It’s insulting to their intelligence.

  • avatar

    The photo pretty much proves that any safety the vehicle might have is negated by the way the vehicle is used. How many of those passengers would be saved by an air bag? Do you think that, even brand new, that small truck could safely haul roughly 2200 pounds of live cargo? How many of the mentioned children that died met their fate by falling of and overcrowded vehicle? How many were in a child seat? Does anyone use a seat belt in there? Allowing only ‘safe’ cars in those countries just means it’ll cost them more money to kill themselves.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Uh-oh. Shall I feel guilty about driving my beater ’66 Ford pickup to the quarry for a load of gravel today? With a good load of rock, it sits almost as low as the Toyota in the picture.

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    Ok, this may sound extremely cruel, but I’d rather have one well-off person alive and one well-off person dead than two poor people alive.

    On that basis alone, let them take the risk. Economic development in the third world is far more important than saving an extra life here or there. This is why I’m not a fan of medical aid and what not. You want to do good to people, give them a job that pays.

    So sure, old cars are dangerous, but so is being poor. It’s a long way to the top, let’s not stand in their way.

  • avatar

    Poor African countryman: Please sir, might I purchase this affordable automobile? I must get my sick child to the clinic for treatment or she will die. My family needs clean water and the nearest safe well is 2 miles from my home.

    Proposed reputable car salesman: I’m sorry sir but I cannot sell you this car for it has only first generation airbags and it does not meet emmission requirements. I’m sure you don’t want to pollute the environment. Think of your children…..well, I mean your other children.

  • avatar

    This discussion is really relevant to an email I recently received from a very polite and wealthy Nigerian businessman. Apparently, he has a terminal illness and wants to give all his money to charity, but his family keeps stealing it from him!

    If I put $50,000 into his account, it will cancel the freeze his family put on his funds and enable me to take out $20 MILLION. This money could help all the poor children in Africa get food and medicine, and also car seats too, now that I think about it. And the best part is that I get to keep $3 million for all my help.

    Wish me luck!

  • avatar

    @ SherbornSean

    Oh a new form of 419

  • avatar

    Brownie: 1. In many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, between 40 and 50 per cent of road crash deaths are pedestrians. 2. Who can say what the impact of safer cars would be on the death toll? Probably minimal, given their abuse. But I believe exporting nations have an obligation to make sure that the their part of this trade should consist of clean-running, safe vehicles (complete with seat belts). What happens after that is beyond their control. 3. Without a doubt, poor enforcement is the single largest cause of this carnage. In the same way that a drug company is still responsible for drug quality before the end user takes control (and abuses the drug), the West has a moral responsibility to make sure its automotive exports START as safe vehicles.   4. I understand the equation: when an automobile can be the difference between life and death, a crap car is better than no car. But please try to understand that these automobiles are CAUSING death. The Global Road Safety Partnership reports that road crashes “kill more young adults (aged between 15 and 44 years) in Africa than malaria." Granted: given endemic corruption and poverty in these countries, there is only so much we in the West can do to encourage them to improve their road safety. But shouldn’t we be doing it? If we want to help third world countries, shouldn’t we direct our help where it can do most good? I’m willing to admit that helping them raise their standard of living may be the best answer. I’m also willing to entertain the possibility that doing nothing is another answer (as suggested by the bit of the article that talked about Manheim and Gulliver’s entry into the Indian used car market). Consider this: the EU is forcing automakers to build cars that can be safely recycled at the end of their life cycle. So how come it’s OK to send our spent machines to third world countries, where they will definitely NOT be disposed in an environmentally friendly way?

  • avatar

    I gotta agree with some of the other posters here… Beater cars are better than no cars. Poor maintenance and use (like overloading the vehicle) is going to be a problem in any car, not just old cars.

    As mentioned before, there are plenty of states/counties here in the US where beaters are dumped, totaled cars are rebuilt, emmisions are allowed to run wild, etc. This is market driven and lax government allowed. I don’t want any more government intervention/control than is ABSOLUTELY nessesary.

    Remember, don’t crush em, restore… er… profit from them!

  • avatar


    Thank you for widening our view of our world, again. This articles reminds me of my travels in Ghana, where I rode on those dangerous roads in a variety of vehicles, some safer than others. Also , I saw “the truth about second hand clothing in the thrid world”: I noticed that many people wore western style clothing, instead of tradition fashions. The majority of these western clothes that were probably donated while further up the food chain, are the commodity of the huge second hand clothing markets common in poorer countries. And the stuff aint free anymore.

  • avatar

    @ RF

    Well, Third World countries (specially Africa) are a global western trash can (from nuclear waste to clothes), and as you pointed out a lot of people profit from that…

    Greed and stupid isolationism are sufficient motivations.

  • avatar


    Thank you for the reality check. It’s pretty obvious that very few of us have a clue of just what living conditions are in the Third World.

    Yeah, it’s a nice thought that we should be watching what leaves our borders – now, just how much time, effort and money should we expend to make sure those cars being shipped out for, say, scrap are suddenly relabeled in mid-transit and sold as being drivable.

    The bottom line: Somewhere, someone wants those unsafe pieces of shite and are willing to pay good money (or acceptable alternate form of transaction) for them. Which means, someone is going to be willing to broker the deal.

    Pious platitudes aside, good luck stopping the flow. And I’m personally sick of pious platitudes attempting to get in the way of cold, hard reality.

  • avatar

    RF – I have to disagree with you on this one (something I rarely do). It’s not that the cars are dangerous, it’s that the culture doesn’t value safety. I guess I really should say, that the culture has more important things to worry about than safety (i.e., getting food). If you were to give them a brand new Land Cruiser with all the latest safety features, they’d still pack it 20 deep with people and overload it with cargo and drive it in an unsafe manner. For them the primary goal is transportation and their only option is to run vehicles above safe capacity.

    In the US we have a distorted view because we are so well off, we can (and unfortunatly do) spend most of our time having the government tell us what’s best for us. The more well off we become, the more nitpicky we get and have the government legislate about things like personal safety. When you’re poor and you need food then you worry about getting food first and about your safety second. But when you have all the food you could ever hope for, then you start trying to save the children.

    Here’s a funny example of that. I live in a smallish city of about 100,000 people. No only is it a very well off city, but the residents are a big fan of the nanny state. One time I was walking around town with a visitor and at the cross walk he noticed that there was this big fancy LCD countdown timer telling us how much time we had left to cross the street. I thought nothing of it, because it had always been there. But he commented that the city he’s from has been trying to raise money just to buy the standard Walk/Don’t Walk signs for some of their busy streets and he thought it was funny that my city was so rich that they felt it necessary to waste money to tell me how many seconds I had left to finish crossing.

    That always stuck with me as a good example of when you’re rich you have the luxury to worry about the small stuff, but when you’re poor, any solution will do.

  • avatar

    Interesting article.

    I would say that in the balance these things may be causing more deaths but the cure will likely be worse than it needs to be.

    For lack of a vehicle…

    The medicine did not arrive.
    The Food did not arrive.
    The sewer was not built on time.
    The terrorists were not escaped.
    The hospital could not be reached.
    The oppression continued.

    etc. etc. etc.

    Other than antibiotics the biggest life saving and lengthening inventions were proper sewers, insecticides, refigeration, and autos.

    Yes, it’s easy to see the deaths, but it’s hard to see the longer lives. That’s where governments always seem to go wrong. They favor what they can measure easily.

    I would rather see the governments concentrate on driver training, enforcement of road laws, and road quality than making sure the cars have airbags. Let the people have their rotten cars until they can afford safer ones. The resulting benefits of transportation will rise them up faster than the crashes will kill them off.

  • avatar


    I guess this whole debate can be split into two separate issues: personal safety and environmental safety.

    The environmental safety issue is part of the bigger “how concerned about the environment can/should a poor nation be” question. I personally feel that developing nations have bigger fish to fry and the West should clean its own house first, but reasonable people can disagree.

    On the personal safety front, I believe it should be up to individual nations to set their own rules balancing their own local concerns. They do have governments, after all, even if we here in the West don’t think they are capable of governing themselves. The very fact that it is not considered a local priority ought to count for something, and should give us pause before imposing overly restrictive rules.

    Maxrent, you brought up an excellent point. It is shocking how much Western garbage is reused in poor countries. Here recycling plastic water bottles is a nuisance; in Africa plastic water bottles are valuable commodities which are bought and sold at local markets. They are far ahead of us in the reduce/reuse/recycle department, simply out of necessity.

  • avatar

    The repair folks in Africa are amazing at one thing: keeping the vehicles running. It may be spewing flaming garbage out the end of an open exhaust manifold, but if it runs, then it is good. I was in many of those overloaded (14+ passengers) cargo vans with 4 people hanging off the back. They work.
    Three other comments:
    1. Having something that runs is essential for medical needs. That is all there is to it. It may cost you a year’s wages to get to a free clinic, but it is better than dying…and that choice comes up all of the time. Life is much harder in a third-world country than those of us in front of computers often appreciate.
    2. The roads in the third-world are awful. Your Camry would die as soon as it tried to scale the potholes in a washed-out mud road. Many places NEED 4-wheel drive trucks.
    3. I woke up in Ghana one morning to the taste of burning garbage on my tongue. It is that thick. More help is needed than just auto emissions. Also, if you want to see the Taj Mahal, you cannot take a combustion-engined vehicle within miles of it due to the emissions. The solution is to stop all vehicles. That is how bad it is. Yet people will have to breathe that stuff in all day!

    4. I thought the “border town” Mexican market for large old US SUVs was interesting. Just a side note. It is a huge market.

  • avatar

    I come from a 3rd world country.
    These hand me down are a mane, a treasure, keep em coming. You need to see it not from the eyes of a USA person from 2007 but from the USA person in the 1930. These countries live in the beginning of the 20th century and they need to mature to the point where the same security consideration than in the developed world can apply.
    Life is cheap, the casualties you refer to are not more overwhelming than the flu epidemic in the 1920’s, polio in the 50’s, potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century or the incessant european wars for the last 10000 years.

    The solution can only come from their end not yours. That spent down vehicle contributes more to their economy right now that a brand new vehicle that is not built in that country. Another consideration is that by keeping some vehicle useful life well beyond what was intended to begin with, these people are actually helping the environment and not the opposite. And contrarily to what you may think these vehicles are religiously mantained (granted within the economical limitations of their owners) because they need to go the distance. I suggest you take a look at moroccan taxis or cuban vehicles. These old Benzes and Cadillacs have been on the road for 30-60years. Probably nothing under the hood is original nor even GM or MB parts. They belch smoke, lead and soot but over the generations they have substitute 10-15 new vehicles that would have polute a lot more to be manufactured, and would not have maintained small repair shops in those place and create a thriving parts market (that is economic development!!!!Not sending your hard-earned dollars back to the 1st world).

  • avatar

    Regarding the bicycle comment:

    Bicycling magazine just did an article about a container load of bicycles that was donated to a country in Africa (can’t remember the name, but it was one of the peaceful, better run ones in the central part of the continent) for use by AIDS clinic workers to enable them to visit more patients per day.

    Three months after the container arrived, the author (part of the project) went down to check on how things were working. Imagine his surprise to find that the bikes were still sitting in the container, untouched.

    It seems that the ‘bicycle committee’ for the clinic had only met once and was at least a few meetings away from beginning to decide how to hand the bikes out, had no idea when the next meeting was schedule but real soon now, etc., etc., etc. And no bikes were getting distributed until the committee worked out ALL the details as to when and how.

    The article ended with the author grabbing the keys to the container, setting up the bikes for the health care workers and distributing them, while the clinic administration sputtered about ‘circumventing the proper channels’ and openly tried to hinder his efforts – until it became obvious that he was going through with it, at which point the clinic administration was suddenly on his side and helpful. The health care workers got the bikes they’d been for which they’d been waiting three months, and the number of daily visits they were able to make to sick people went up radically.

    Seems like the local government was more interesting in governing (controlling) than actually accomplishing something. And from other things I’ve read over the years, this is not an isolated situation. If you think American bureaucracy is bad, try some of the foreign versions.

    This is in a relatively well-run country. Now, imagine how that would work in a strife-torn and/or corrupt one. Still think you can legislate safe cars for their population?

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    You could send them the safest vehicles in the world, and they’d still overload them, overwork them, drive them dangerously (i.e. w/out using the seatbelts), and not repair them properly when they break. Unless most of those automotive deaths are being caused by the vehicles spontaneously combusting, most of the deaths are probably preventable even with hacked-together cars. The environmental impact is probably of more consequence, but even if the car is sent over w/ functioning emissions controls, the likelihood of those controls surviving even a few years is small… if they break due to the rough conditions and usage, they’re not likely to be repaired properly if at all. It’s really an education problem more than anything, much like the AIDS problems in Africa.

    I agree that we should be trying, but sending over better vehicles won’t do much. Perhaps more warning stickers plastered on the inside of the cars before export? :)

  • avatar

    For those who haven’t travelled much in the 3rd world, it’s hard to visualize just how primitive the auto-motive scene is in many places…like the US was around 50 or even 100 years ago. One of the most ubiquitous transportation devices in much of Asia is the all-purpose diesel engine tractor unit(almost always a Mitsubishi) that can be seen towing dozens of people on flat-bed trailers over impossible unpaved mountain passes (when they aren’t dredging irrigation channels in rice paddies.) Or the 3 wheel 2 stroke “rickshaws” that pass for taxis in many urban areas. The traffic is like organzed chaos, a mix of these with pedestrians, bikes, scooters, busses and trucks made even more sureal by the sacred cows et al. wandering unmolested through it all. One can understand the desire of the upwardly mobile middle class in places like China and India wanting the same kind of mobility that westerners take for granted, but there is no infrastructure (roads especially) to accomodate current levels of traffic, let alone the growth predicted for the next few decades. To be continued…

  • avatar

    Despite how dirty those vehicles are, and how bad the local environment may be, it’s still us that are responsible for the highest emissions of any country in the world. China will catch up soon – but when they do, that’ll still mean 1/5 the emissions per capita. I am generally quite environmentalist (especially on car forums, where there are fewer) but I don’t consider this a priority.

    But it’s silly to argue – this was a great article. It’s something most of us don’t think about much (not just 3rd world driving conditions, but what happens to our old clunkers) and that’s something TTAC is good at.

  • avatar

    miked, don’t rag on the cross-walk signs with the count down. Those things are great for drivers, knowing how long you have until the light turns yellow. :)

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit


    I thought I was the only person who did that. My husband still hasn’t picked up on why I’ll be like, “Gun it!” as we get close to an intersection.

    You know, I think that the fact that these vehicles still run despite the abuses is a testament to modern manufacturing. Can any of you imagine cars from the 60s, even 70s still running with those types of abuses? I’d do a survey to see what vehicles are in the majority and use it as a selling point.

  • avatar

    I’d do a survey to see what vehicles are in the majority and use it as a selling point.

    If Ethiopia is representative, then the answer isn’t a huge surprise: Toyota, Toyota, Toyota. Old Toyota vans serve as minibuses in Addis Ababa, beaten up Toyota sedans are taxis and personal vehicles for the relatively priveledged, compact Toyota trucks move people and goods around in rural areas and construction sites, and Landcruisers from the early 90’s are the transportation of choice for government agencies and tour guides. Fiat is abundant as well, but I believe that is more due to Ethiopia’s ties with Italy during and after WWII than Fiat’s outstanding reliability. :)

  • avatar

    Don’t forget about all the 50s detroit iron still in daily use in Cuba.

  • avatar

    And this is a problem how?

    Worry about what could and should be controlled, why are 20+ year old vehicles in the US exempt from emission tests? why are there repair cost limits?

    It probably is just a coincidence that now when several manufacturers want to sell cheap world cars that no one here would drive this is a problem.

  • avatar

    As if we don’t have enough problem we can’t solve, now we want to regulate safety on used, exported cars driven on the 3rd world?? Why not force the manufacturers to provide warranty’s while you’re at it?

    Standards of living are relative, what would be unacceptable to us is routine to others. You seem to suggest denying affordable transportation to the 3rd world, then forcing them to buy the West’s new cheapo cars because the conform to what we think an acceptable car is.

  • avatar

    # Megan Benoit:
    June 14th, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    “I agree that we should be trying, but sending over better vehicles won’t do much.”

    I don’t think we should try. If a personal disregard for safety is so pervasive, and if safer vehicles would do little, why bother? We would be wasting plenty of time and energy trying to solve a problem with no real solution. We’ve got lots more to worry about that we CAN do something about

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Not to mention that a lot of the cars that are going overseas are stolen anyway, which pretty much negates any effort to try to regulate export. One of the most lucrative crime schemes in the Western world is to steal cars (luxury SUVs are some of the favorites) and then export them to 3rd world countries where they can be sold at a huge premium, and where getting clean papers on a car is as easy as brushing a few palms.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit


    My point was that education would possibly do more to help, vice sending ‘safer’ cars that would be rapidly made un-safe. Wearing seatbelts alone would probably help prevent a significant number of deaths, much as it does here.

  • avatar

    Given how incredibly stringent I hear the German standards are, I suspect half the “classics” people here love and think perfectly “safe” enough couldn’t pass a German road inspection.

    There’s a reason they don’t drive old cars there (or in Japan), and it’s not that old (15 year old) cars are actually death-traps; it’s that their standards are, by American standards, insanely strict.

    (I think a German car inspector might faint if he inspected my 31 year old Mercedes.)

    That said, I’m not seeing any reason to believe that the cars exported from Europe are particularly “unsafe”, or exactly how “broken down” they are – is the Der Spiegel article not online or behind a pay firewall?

    That it was not economically viable to make it drivable in Germany is no reason to believe that the car is actively unsafe.

  • avatar

    Oh, great. We’re exporting the equivalent of dozens of WMD’s to the Third World. Tough to fix this one, though – amnesty program, perhaps? trade in your unsafe clunker for a new Tata or Hilux?

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Interesting article, but I think the bottom line is that one way or another, poverty kills.

    People living on the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid are willing to take greater risks in order to survive, so they’ll gladly drive unsafe Western castoffs. On the other hand, if denied transportation that they can afford, they’ll die for lack of medicine, medical care, food, jobs, education, etc.

    I’m not certain that there is a clear answer to this one.

  • avatar

    interesting article. Although these units are definitely poorly maintained, etc. In comparison, this group commuting to work in my area would ‘require’ at least a dozen new 8 cyl f-150s, and Tahoes all with four wheel drive to idle along at 10mph on smoothly paved roads… Which one of us is really belching all the toxins in the air?

  • avatar

    In North America 45 years ago, we used cars, without seat belts, without collapsing steering columns, without padded dashes, and certainly without ABS, traction control, air bags, side beams.

    Many of these latter years safety features have created a phenomenon of “apparent security” which motivates an element of carelessness while driving.

    In the good ole days if a car had a positraction and bias belted snow tires for the rear wheels, this was exceptional winter equipment. Today its a 4 wheel drive everything, 4 winter tires with special rubber compounds. Years ago people knew how to drive and handle a car in snow, today they get in “situations” have no clue how it happened.

    Used cars have always been the “unwanted by product” of the automotive business. The recently used one’s with balance of warranty manufacturers have taken an interest in them, the older ones are
    evolve in this “grey area” which has not changed in many years.

    On a closer to home subject, take a look at accidented cars, and what happens to them in North America.

  • avatar

    We really shouldn’t be telling people what to do in a poor undeveloped country when we can’t even get things right here!

    The answer would be to help raise their econimies by letting THEM build cheap cars/trucks for themselves. Now they have a job and a small but decent(relative to their econimies) paycheck to pay for that cheap basic car they just built.

  • avatar

    RF – Great topic.
    I think we could learn something from the ingenuity of the machanics who keep those old cars running.

  • avatar

    Great article RF! Talk about a complicated issue.

    On the topice of which cars make it in the Third World:
    1. Last time I visted Zimbabwe (1994, by now the very good old days) it seems all the local cars were ’70s Peugot station wagons. My inlaws had one of those – it really went on and on.
    2. In Botswana most of the rural roads are just long sandy trenches. You don’t need to steer: your vehicle follows the path of least resistance and stays in the middle of the road by itself. Obviously, 4WD is required. One guy used to remark that after 300,000 km your Land Rover is just well run in. That was back in 1990.

  • avatar

    Very interesting article. One minor quibble: you say:

    According to the World Health Organization, more African children die from road crashes than the HIV/AIDS virus.

    Children are undoubtedly the least affected by HIV. They may catch it at birth from infected mothers, but by the time they may be having sex–and I read something recently indicating they are not as promiscuous as American teenagers–they are old enough to have a shot at making it into adulthood. I would have been interested in comparing road deaths to malaria.

  • avatar

    Here’s the truth:

    40,000 people (I’m not going to say they are all American citizens, but regardless) are killed on America’s highways each and EVERY YEAR.

    Do the math, folks…that’s 109 dead people each and every 24-hour period.

    The powers that be have deem 109 dead people each and EVERY DAY an acceptable price to pay.


    It doesn’t MATTER if its your elderly Grandmother run over by some A-holio in an F-350, booze on his breath. That’s PERFECTLY OK!!!

    When people pass on the shoulders, toss bottles at vehicles they deem worthy of such behavior, when people purposely try and run you off the road (YES, I’ve had this happen to me), I’d say we have enough to deal with ourselves. Not to jump on the bandwagon against this article…

    And on the flip side, ….there are 6 Billion+ people in this world. I say let’s clean up our own act with driver training, law enforcement, revocation of driving privileges in THIS country, …and let all the OTHER lunatics kill each other overseas!!

    Seriously, the world would be a better place with less people. If they wish to kill themselves by driving an unsafe POS, I say LET THEM :)

    Apparently most American’s believe less people is a good things too…why else do you think Bush attempted to legalize illegal immigrants? The tax base would shrink otherwise. Declining tax revenue means a corresponding decline in “power”.

    As long as the average dirt-poor gutter sweeper has 8 children, none of which he/she can feed, then let the cars crash where they will.

    And yes, I have a heart…it breaks my heart to see so many people living in filth. It does. Why then can’t they stop breeding the way they do?

    Send them a couple vintage Greyhound buses…maybe THAT will help :)

  • avatar

    Another interesting and important topic is the issue with cars stolen in the west and then shipped to third-world countries. There are some countries with very very liberal registration-rules. It’s more a matter of showing up with the car, getting a stamp on the papers and then slap a plate on the car. No questions asked after some money are handed over a little discretly. Preferably countires in turmoil or civil war. Lebanon has been mentioned, I don’t know what more.

    If you see tv-clips from the middle east and wonder about the amount of Mercs and Bimmers, most of these cars have been stolen in Europe, preferably Germany. As the countries in question has no extradition agreements, there’s nothing one can do. After the cars are registrered in their new countries, their papers are clean and the cars can then be exported anywhere in the middle east.

    In Sweden, were I live, some 50 000 cars are reported stolen every year, some 40 000 never to be seen again. As I have worked with former car thiefs, then more or less reformed, they told me how they stole cars regularly, took them on joyrides, and then handed them over to their connection in the import/export harbour in Stockholm. Their connection was a member of the russian mafia, and the cars were shipped to St Petersburg and then Moscow. My friends recieved a payment of about 5000-10000 dollars on every car they delivered, or roughly 1/4th of the retail value. The cars in question were new cars, Saabs, Volvos, Audis, BMWs, Mercedeses, and so on.

  • avatar

    Thought-provoking article, Robert. It’s a conundrum that will exist as long as there is such a thing as a “Third World”, which will gladly accept all of our cast-offs, no matter how dangerous or toxic. If one wants to reduce such activities, merely distribute the wealth of the world evenly. Yeah, that’ll work. ;-)

  • avatar

    Just read through every comment – fantastic opinions, people.

    The notion that stands out most to me is one of cultural safety. Many of these societies do not view people as valuable beings, but rather as expendable tools. Therefore, the culture reflects this attitude and allows horrible carnage on the roads. Similar to our lapse into accepting poor fuel economy in SUVs, these countries have lapsed into accepting high death rates with dilapidated cars and trucks.

    How is this attitude changed? From the inside is all I know. :)

  • avatar

    The concept of saving us from ourselves by destroying old cars will do nothing but fund organized crime. There is a demand for the product. If it can’t be bought and sold legally, then it will be bought and sold illegally. The US experiment of probation and our war-on-drugs should have taught us to there are limits to what we can outlaw.

    Another factor in unsafe driving practices in the Middle East is the Arabic “Insha’Allah”, literally “If God Wills”. They have a fatalistic view of life. So if you are going to die in what we would consider a very preventable auto accident, then it is simply your avoidable fate. So taking precautions is not even factored in.

  • avatar

    How about the Jeepney? It’s amazing to see how creative people can be in solving transportation problems. During a trip to the Phillipines a few years ago, I was amazed by the sight of thousands of Jeepneys. Originally based on surplus Jeeps following WWII, they have since been manufactured by hundreds of mom and pop shops. Unsafe?–yes. Emissions?–forget about it. But they are cheap, practical, easily repaired, and offer a platform for everything from hot rods to limos.

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