Driving for safe future

A representative image of a crash test.

A representative image of a crash test.  

Should affordability be at the cost of safety?

Last week, one of the 26 NGOs that have partnered with UN Road Safety Collaboration, an informal consultative mechanism for road safety efforts, attracted media attention in India through its recent “findings” on India-built small cars.

UK-based Global NCAP (GNCAP) said that it conducted crash-tests on Maruti Swift and Nissan’s Datsun GO and the results revealed that their weak structures and lack of airbags made them unsafe. This was the second round of crash tests conducted by it on India-built cars in 2014. It had conducted such tests on Maruti Alto, Tata Nano, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo. All these cars received zero-star rating for adult protection. But Volkswagen withdrew its non-airbag Polo model and introduced dual frontal airbags. This model received four star safety rating by GNCAP.

The UN has declared a Decade of Action for Road Safety (2011-2020), which aims to reduce by 50 per cent the forecast number of road fatalities by 2020. One of its key aims is to encourage the development of NCAPs (New Car Assessment Programmes) in emerging markets, which rate the cars with stars awarded based on occupant protection scores. GNCAP is supporting those efforts and carries out such crash-tests.

Stringent standards

While GNCAP neither has the authority nor the jurisdiction to demand recall of any car model, its crash-tests and revelations are expected to spark debates and accelerate initiatives on vehicle safety in the country. The NGO applies a 5-star system, which are more stringent than legislative tests, for safety rating of vehicles. This is similar to what JD Power does in terms of rating of consumer satisfaction.

“The UN has established minimum regulatory standards for front and side impact crash test standards which we would encourage India to adopt. The UN frontal impact test is carried out at 56 km/h whereas NCAP tests (for consumer information) usually use a higher speed of 64 km/h. The higher speed ensures that the impact replicates crashes which commonly result in fatal injury. There are nine NCAP tests and eight of them use the same test format and speed as we have done in India,” David Ward, Secretary General of Global NCAP told The Hindu.

Interestingly, crash-tests have been conducted by GNCAP only on entry-level models that account for a good share of sales. So far, entry-level models sold in India do not come with airbags and other safety features; those with these features come at a premium. These base models meet Indian safety regulations, but do not go beyond.

Vehicle manufacturers don’t claim that these vehicles meet the 5-star requirements of NCAP. This is because it is expected that base model vehicles would not pass any tests which are higher than those demanded by the Indian safety regulations as they are meant for the Indian mass market, which is highly price conscious. Carmakers and industry body SIAM have defended their position and said they are complying with Indian norms, which may be right.

Not expensive…

There is no Indian law that requires its passenger vehicles to meet the United Nation’s minimum crash test standards. The country doesn’t have a New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), which provides crash-tests information, either. “At the best of our knowledge crash standards have been formulated for full frontal, off frontal and as well as side crash. Bureau of Indian Standards is working to convert these standards in Indian format. These are basically derived from European regulations,” says Abhay Damle, Director, Central Institute of Road Transport.

However, GNCAP feels that it is possible to offer low cost models that are able to pass the minimum UN crash test. “In our recent tests, for example, we were able to compare the performance of the Maruti Suzuki Swift both with and without air bags. The car with airbags scored three stars which is a performance that exceeds the UN regulatory test. Without air bags the car would fail the UN test and has a high risk of life threatening injury.

“In contrast the Datsun Go has such a weak body shell that it would not pass the UN crash test and there is no point in fitting air bags at all,” said Mr. Ward.

India, as an evolving economy, needs affordable entry-level models so that the vulnerable road users (cyclists, two-wheeler users, etc) can gradually upgrade to safer mode of transport. Though Tata Nano or Maruti Alto received poor rating after crash-tests, these two affordable models have definitely helped vulnerable segment to upgrade.

Of course, the cost of the vehicles will go up on introduction of frontal crash tests as it would require development of reinforced structure and use of air bags etc. The cost rise could be in the range of Rs.30,000 per vehicle. Such increase in the present conditions would definitely impact the migration of the two-wheeler users to cars, as the entry-level is very price sensitive. But should affordability be at the cost of safety?

Holistic view needed

In contrast to entry-level models, most big cars made in India conform to safety features higher than that required by the Indian safety regulations. “We need to take a holistic view if we really want to reduce the fatalities by improving all types of vehicles running on the roads through lane allocation and driving, improving road infrastructure and strict enforcement, among others. Vehicle technology is only one part, and this has to be seen along with the other factors that influence road safety,” says Vishnu Mathur, Director General of Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM).

Mr. Damle asserts that most of our standards are at par with international regulations and in respect of remaining we are verge of adopting international norms. While admitting that fatalities on Indian roads are much higher than the comparable peers, he points out that better certification and testing process alone won’t do good, but we need to understand as to how many fatalities are due to head-on collisions and other factors such as road condition, driver behaviours, traffic conditions, enforcement and overloading, among others.

“Over the last decade, significant advancements have been made in improving safety features in cars. Seat belts have been made mandatory, side crash test is mandatory, standards for lighting, mirrors have been hugely upgraded to meet UN standards, advanced braking systems including ABS has been mandated in some category of vehicles, new safety codes for construction of truck and bus bodies have been finalised, under-run protection devices have been made mandatory for commercial vehicles. ,” Mr. Mathur adds.

India is also in the process of introducing the frontal crash regulations which is linked with the upcoming test facilities being set up at Pune, Manesar and Chennai. Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme is also being worked out by the government. The off-set frontal crash regulations will be implemented after the test facilities are ready by 2015. A lead time has been worked out for implementing the same as the industry would require time for development of the vehicles and certification.

Mr. Ward is of the view that although India has many distinct characteristics, its road safety challenges are not unique. The laws of physics and the typical mechanisms of injury are the same around the world. Also, the automobile industry is globalising very fast and vehicle designs are shared across markets. That is why it is important to ensure that UN minimum safety standards are applied by all the major car producers. The government needs to strike a right balance between safety concerns in entry models and affordable mobility solutions for the masses. India needs to evolve a holistic approach that addresses road infrastructure, technology, design and materials, enforcement of rules, and the consumer behaviour through aggressive awareness campaigns. Maybe, making airbags mandatory could be the beginning in India’s journey towards a safer regime.

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 3:14:57 PM |

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