India's auto safety crisis: Why Janhavi Gadkar survived in the Audi and those in the taxi didn't

It took yet another high-profile case — last week's Mumbai accident involving an Audi and a taxi — to once again highlight that a large section of India-manufactured vehicles are far from safe.

A look at the two vehicles (pic below) involved in the accident shows the disparity in Indian car safety standards. The Audi, which is a luxury vehicle, ensured the injury to its passenger in the case of a head-on collision, was minimum; the crumple zone did its job. For the budget taxi vehicle (which was a Maruti Eeco), the only safety the passenger had was his seat-belt.

 Indias auto safety crisis: Why Janhavi Gadkar survived in the Audi and those in the taxi didnt

Image: GNCAP

Both the cars could have had its occupants relatively safe if India had adhered to safety norms prescribed by various bodies including the United Nations. Unfortunately, for those travelling in the taxi, the car came with no air bags or a safe crumple zone that could have reduced the impact on at least its front-seat occupants.

It's as simple as this — if you have the money in India, you can ensure your safety by buying a luxury car. The government isn't interested in stepping in and tightening regulations to ensure car manufacturers adhere to basic safety measures which are implemented globally, irrespective of what model a consumer chooses to purchase - basic or high-end.

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And manufacturers find an easy loophole to wriggle out of safety demands. While global safety agencies may question a car company's safety measures, the standard response, until now, has been that the cars produced for the Indian market meet the country's safety standards. This, despite India emerging as the fifth largest producer in the world of passenger cars.

Take the example of Nissan's Datsun GO. When Global NCAP, a UK-based organisation that carries out consumer safety tests, conducted a crash test of the car that is sold in India, it failed to score on the safety chart and was heavily criticised for its sub-standard structure. The same model, was banned in North America and Europe.

Nissan's response, according to MotorBeam, is that its car meets safety standards prescribed by the Indian government. "The Datsun GO meets Indian safety standards and was developed with an intention to meet the demands of local conditions."

And it's not as if Nissan engineers don't know how to build safe cars. Three of their 2014 models sold in the US earned the 2014 IIHS top safety pick+ award and another is a top safety pick.

Simply put, it is the government and the automobile manufacturing bodies in the country that need to step up and rethink safety measures in vehicles.

But nothing has changed despite the high number of accidents in the country. The government's own data reveals that a serious road accident occurs every minute, 16 deaths occur on Indian roads every hour, and over 20,000 deaths are due to drunk driving every year. For some reason, it appears that the government is hesitant to take the initial step of introducing tougher safety norms for manufacturers to comply with. Much like in the case of Maggi, where after one major expose the FSSAI decided to test all variants of instant noodles and put in place better testing norms, perhaps the government is waiting for a catastrophe to wake up and fix what could well be one of the main reasons behind India's high road deaths.

Data released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, reveals that over the last three years, Light Motor Vehicles have been accounting for about 20 percent of the accidents in India.

In 2011, cars/jeeps/taxis accounted for 21.3 percent of all road accidents in the country. In 2012, it was 21.6 percent. In 2013, the latest data that is available in the government domain, the percentage of accidents involving light motor vehicles accounted for 22.2 percent.

And the demand for better safety measures in India has seen a tremendous increase. According to KPMG's Global Automotive Executive Survey 2015, safety innovation as a purchasing criteria for the next five years saw a rise among India and ASEAN consumers. From 42 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2014 to a massive 74 percent in 2015.

Globally, safety innovation as a priority stood at 52 percent in 2015, as opposed to 48 percent in 2014 and 46 percent in 2013.

Crash test failure

In early 2014, Global NCAP crash tested five of India's popular cars — Maruti-Suzuki Alto 800, which is India's best-selling car, Tata Nano, Ford Figo, Hyundai i10 and Volkswagen Polo.

The organisation chose the entry-level versions of each model, which form a fifth of the total passenger vehicle sales in India. Not surprisingly, all the cars failed in a frontal impact test at 64 kmph, and received zero-star adult protection rating. None of these models come fitted with airbags, a security feature that's mandatory almost globally.

Furthermore, the test revealed that in the case of the Alto 800, the Tata Nano and the Hyundai i10, even if the car had been fitted with airbags, the extent of the structural weakness was such that even the airbags would not be effective in reducing the risk of serious injury. Soon after the test, Volkswagen Polo made front-seat airbags compulsory across its models following which it got a four-star rating for safety.

But here's what matters: A consumer who has the budget to buy a Polo or any other high-end hatchback will not hesitate to throw in a few thousands and get airbags fitted in his vehicle. For a low-budget user, the aspiring middle class who wants to upgrade from a two-wheeler to a budget four-wheel vehicle, cost cutting is an important factor. The user is bound to think that moving from a bike to a car is a jump in terms of safety in itself, and therefore comprising on airbags would not matter much. And it is these cars that constitute most of the vehicles on Indian roads.

Proposed regulations for car safety

In 2014, the government, in its draft Road Transport and Safety Bill - proposed the setting up of the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme, under which cars will be tested for their safety through front-on and side-on crash tests and cars being sold in India will adhere to at least basic global safety measures.

Among other safety measures, cars will have to come with compulsory seat-belt alerts, anti-lock braking system and child lock.

However, the new safety norms, which will unfold in phases, will come into complete effect only five years from the date of notification, as manufacturers need time to redesign their assembly line and also develop new products that adhere to the new safety norms.

According to The Times of India, cars will also be allotted star rating in terms of their safety. "There will also be an administrative body of BNVSAP, which will have the authority to choose the new vehicle models to be taken up for assessment to verify compliance. In parallel to mandatory star rating for new models, the voluntary star rating for both new and old model shall also be allowed."

Moreover, beyond setting-up its own New Car Assessment Programme, the government should also conform to the United Nation’s minimum crash tests standards. As of now, India doesn’t require vehicles to meet UN regulations for occupant protection in frontal crashes and side impacts. The UN frontal impact test is carried out at 56 km/h while NCAP carries out its test at a speed of 64 kmph.

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2015 08:21:38 IST