RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) -- The Brazilian government may delay "by one or two years" the implementation of a law requiring automakers to install frontal air bags and anti-lock braking systems in all new cars, the finance minister said Wednesday.
Safety advocates decried the idea of any delay, saying that in terms of safety, Brazilian cars are already decades behind those produced for consumers in the U.S. and Europe despite Brazil now being the globe's No. 4 auto market.
Earlier this year, an Associated Press investigation into the safety record of cars sold in Brazil found they had significantly fewer safeguards than the same or similar models sold in the U.S. and Europe. Using Health Ministry data, the AP found that Brazilians die at four times the rate as Americans in passenger car wrecks and that fatalities rose more than 70 percent in Brazil in the past decade while falling 40 percent in the U.S.
Independent tests have been conducted in Germany on Brazil's most popular car models, and the results are bleak. Brazil's top-selling cars, most lacking air bags and advanced brake systems, failed their crash tests.
Brazil's government said in 2009 that it would gradually require automakers to install air bags and anti-locking braking systems in vehicles. By Jan. 1, 2014, all vehicles were to include two frontal air bags and the brake system.
But Finance Minister Guido Mantega said Wednesday that after recent meetings with Anfavea, a trade group representing Brazil's auto industry, and also with autoworker unions, the government had grown concerned about a rise in prices for the most basic models of cars, which could jump by more than $600. Another concern is jobs that may be lost if some vehicle models cease production because they cannot be outfitted with the safety equipment, which would be the case with Volkswagens iconic "hippie" van, which is produced only in Brazil.
"It's possible we'll delay by one or two years the implementation" of the law mandating 100 percent of autos have air bags and ABS brakes, Mantega said in Brasilia. "We're studying what to do with it and we'll decide next Tuesday."
The government has repeatedly given incentives for consumers to purchase cars in Brazil, and with 40 million people joining the middle class in the last decade, sales of entry-level cars have skyrocketed. That has helped bolster the nation's economy since the 2008 financial crisis.
Luiz Moan, president of the Brazilian automaker trade group, said in an emailed statement that he was aware the government might delay the safety measure and that the group was "evaluating it."
An emailed statement from the Cities Ministry, which is responsible for the implementation of auto safety laws, said that it was not aware any delay was being considered and that it still considered Jan. 1 as the deadline for all newly produced vehicles to have air bags and ABS brakes.
Any delay would be disastrous for Brazilian consumers, especially those who have been buying entry-level cars at record rates in recent years, said Maria Ines Dolci, coordinator of the Rio de Janeiro-based consumer defense group Proteste.
"They've gradually implemented the requirement for more safety equipment, so it shouldn't be a surprise for the government or car makers," she said. "Changing the rules of the game at the last minute like this would endanger the lives of thousands of consumers."