The recent Global NCAP safety tests on some of the largest selling cars in India have drawn the public’s attention to a topic that was already industry knowledge – that safety, on the whole, is an ignored concept in India. We take a closer look.
Let me start by putting a very sobering figure on the table – road deaths in India stood at 143,000 deaths in the year 2011, according to the data available with the WHO. And that’s just the reported number of deaths. To put that in context, India contributes to more than 10% of road deaths in the world every year, and we’re at the top of the charts in this respect – not something to be proud of really.
As such, there has never really been enough debate about this subject in the past. Fortunately, this topic has been thrust into the limelight due to the crash tests performed on some of the largest selling cars in India by a global charity organisation known as Global NCAP, which works on establishing the new car assessment program (NCAP) in various countries and tests the safety standards of these cars. What transpired when the cars were tested is now already public knowledge, but I’ll quickly recap. All the cars tested – and these are significant cars given that their combined sales volume is about 20% of the total cars sold in our country – failed to pass even the UN basic frontal impact crash test at 56km/h, never mind the NCAP test at 64km/h. In most cases, the cars were deemed dangerous – as, upon impact, the structure of the cars became unstable and could cause serious, or life threatening, injuries to the occupants. Only the VW Polo managed to pass the test with a 4-star rating. Although that wasn’t the case with the original non-airbag equipped car, and the rating was only achieved when VW offered an airbag equipped car to be retested. Fortunately, following the result, VW has now stopped selling the non-airbag model of the Polo in India.
While there is a simple argument here of the manufacturers not being concerned about human life in our country, I believe that the reason for this is far more complex and wide-ranging. To understand the cause of so many deaths we have to examine many issues relating to why so many accidents take place on our roads in the first place. The first issue is our dilapidated infrastructure, which clearly hasn’t kept pace with growth and is crumbling. The second issue, and I think it’s of vital importance here, is driver training – which, as we all know, doesn’t exist in our country. Naturally, this leads to untrained and unsafe drivers on our roads. The third is the complete apathy that our government and bureaucracy displays for the loss of human life. Despite having lost many important figures to road accidents in the past – including a former President of this country, they seem to have no cause to worry about the issue.
Now, one could say that the onus of providing safer cars is on the manufacturers – which is true. But if you look back at the history of automobiles, major changes on safety and emissions in vehicles has only come across when there has been a change in government policy dictating the same. It happened in the US in the 70’s, and while there was much complaining and teeth grinding from the industry, gradually everyone fell in line. So, expecting auto companies to play good Samaritan, and provide increased levels of safety at the cost of their own profits would be naïve. And one really can’t blame them for not increasing the safety equipment in cars and passing on the cost to the consumers either – because our market is not only extremely price sensitive, but also largely illiterate about vehicle safety as well. So, the consumer is far more concerned with what he or she is paying rather than the potential safety of the occupants.
So, whether you like it or not, an increase in vehicular safety has to come via official policy being rammed down the throats of both the industry and the consumers. Yes, we’ll shout and whine and cry about it, but the fact of the matter is that the only way to make vehicles safer is by making it illegal for them to be sold otherwise. For those of us who are old enough to remember, there was a massive hue and cry when the Bharat – I/II/III emission norms were first introduced in the late-90’s. Certain manufacturers tried every trick in the book to avoid those rules being notified – including taking their case to every court they could – but, thankfully, that didn’t stop the norms from coming into force. So, expect similar resistance to such rules from certain large players of the industry when the subject of safety comes up. But the government has to make the first move and change policy to increase the safety standards in order to make our roads safer. Sure, there is the issue of driver training and infrastructure, but those are more endemic problems that need to be tackled – and those will, undoubtedly, take much longer to solve. However, mandating an increase in the safety equipment in cars is the need of the hour – nay minute!
I’ll end here by illuminating one point – nearly all the manufacturers whose cars failed the Global NCAP test have offered one excuse for their cars falling short. And I quote, ‘Our cars meet the current Indian standards.’ Which basically means that those standards fall short, and the cars that are sold here are simply not as safe as they could – or should – be! So, while an immediate change in this policy might not completely change the scenario on our roads, at least in the event of a crash we won’t be real life crash test dummies anymore.