The Indian car market may be among the top five in the world, but most of its car owners are driving veritable death traps on four wheels. So the recent order by the Gauhati High Court, asking the Central government not to permit auto manufacturers to release and sell small four-wheelers without standard crash and emission tests — has not come a day too soon. How the Centre responds to this order will show how important car safety is in its scheme of things. The court passed this order after hearing two PILs, in which the petitioners furnished shocking data of top-selling small car models in India, totally failing frontal impact tests in Europe last year. Even when the cars were driven at a sedate speed of 56 kmph and crashed against a target, the way entire front parts collapsed into test-dummies showed that a driver would have received near-fatal injuries. Whether or not the dummies were strapped with seat belts did not seem to matter at all, because the cars itself were found structurally weak. The tests were carried under the Global New Car Assessment Programme, as part of the world car safety watchdog’s activities, upon ten small cars of top five models shipped from Indian showrooms to Germany. The cumulative result of safety norms test was a shameful zero on a scale of 1 to 5.
It remains to be seen what other alarming details come out next month when the High Court is slated to hear the matter again. The petitioners have contended that small four-wheeler passenger vehicles are permitted on the road without passing frontal impact test as required under the law, and these are sold freely without conforming to the requisite standards of safety. The most critical safety feature is airbags, followed by other components like anti-lock braking system (ABS) and rear wipers. The near total absence of airbags in the small Indian cars tested in Germany was identified as a factor bearing high risks of life-threatening injuries to drivers and passengers. Automobile experts have pointed out that key safety features are not being made available by car manufacturers in the basic models sold in India. Car manufacturers in turn argue that while safety features are incorporated in top models, most car buyers in India want to economise and are reluctant to spend more for safety features. Their other defence is that top small cars of Indian make may fail global NCAP tests, but do meet requirements set under current Indian regulations. But such arguments do not hold water if pricing of safety and other associated components are considered, as experts point out. The price of airbags that can protect a driver’s life as well as the front seat occupant, is only around Rs 5,000 while the anti-lock braking system and rear wipers will also come at an additiol Rs 10,000. But most car manufacturers are under fire for including these standard safety features with other luxury accessories that together come in a package costing an additiol Rs one lakh or more. Is it any surprise when such callous pricing forces most car buyers to make do without standard safety features?
In the KPMG global automotive survey for 2013 and 2014, it was shown that while 67 per cent of Indian buyers considered fuel efficiency as the most important factor when buying a car, followed by enhanced vehicle lifespan (53 per cent), as many as 52 per cent buyers paid attention to safety innovation. A study published last year by JD Power & Associates revealed that as much as 92 per cent of small car buyers in India wanted air bags, up from 81 per cent in 2011. However, only 12 per cent of cars sold in the small car segment offered them safety features. Interestingly, some car makers revealed that their decisions to provide air bags were a response to shifting consumer tastes rather than to lobbying by car safety advocates. All this points to a woeful lack of public awareness about unsafe passenger cars whizzing about on Indian roads, ibility of car buyers to demand and get safety features as matter of right to protect life and limb, as well as the apathy of the Central government in ensuring stringent safety norms for car occupants. The car market in India may be booming, but the country also has the most dangerous roads in the world. There were over 1,37,000 road fatalities in the country in 2013 as per government figures. While 73 per cent of vehicles in the country are two-wheelers, 29 per cent of road fatalities involved people riding them. But while four-wheelers make up 14 per cent of all vehicles, car riders accounted for 17 per cent of deaths. The conclusion is clear — when cars are involved in road accidents, the occupants are more at risk of dying. It is high time governments at the Centre and the states take uncompromising stand on vehicle safety, tightening up laws to pelise manufacturers for not putting in essential safety features.