According to official figures, about 1.5 lakh people die on India’s roads every year, and 40 per cent of crashes involve cars. Those of us who are familiar with how automobile manufacturers and the government have combined to ensure a modicum of road safety are also aware of how ideas about safety measures have changed with the passage of time. The earlier models of cars sold in India did not have seat belts or airbags to ensure driver and passenger safety. Instead, cars had strong bumpers that could withstand major collisions. Highway accidents were a fraction of what they are today for three reasons: cars were driven at far lower speeds due to the condition of the roads; there were far fewer cars on our roads than we have today; and proper driving tests were conducted before issuing driving licences. Today, proper driving tests have become an achronism in Assam. One simply buys one’s driving licence by paying a hefty sum under the table. Hence it is not surprising that car accidents should have increased phenomelly over the years, with a whole lot of untrained drivers on our highways.
Present-day cars, driven at far higher speeds on much smoother and wider highways, are not fitted with bumpers. Car manufacturers pretend that safety devices like seat belts and airbags adequately compensate for the lack of bumpers. They also pretend that no matter what happens to the front of the car and its engine, the driver and the passengers in the cabin are safe because of the seat belts and airbags in some cases. That this is no more than a myth is proved by the rapidly increasing number of fatal accidents on our highways. Not all cars are fitted with airbags. Some of the more expensive cars have them, others provide airbags as additiol equipment to be paid for by the buyer and many more do not have even the provision of installing airbags as additiol equipment. The reason often given by automobile manufacturers for dispensing with bumpers is that they unnecessarily add to the weight of cars. What they do not mention is that two chromium-plated bumpers of thick, high-grade steel also add considerably to the cost of cars. What they also refrain from mentioning is that bumpers add substantially to the safety of the occupants. Union Minister for Road Transport Nitin Gadkari had announced in January that new rules would be announced making crash tests and airbags mandatory for all cars. At that time, no mention had been made of these safety features being optiol for manufacturers of cars. He had said that cars would not only have to have airbags as standard equipment, but that they would also have to be submitted for crash tests. In the frontal crash tests, specimen cars would be made to crash head-on against a barrier at a speed of 56 kmph, while in the side crash test they would be hit from the side by another vehicle at a speed of 50 kmph. Both mandatory airbags and crash tests were desirable and positive initiatives with the objective of reducing car accidents, and should have been implemented. Most countries of the world with huge automobile populations do have crash tests as well as airbags as standard equipment. In India, whenever the interest of protecting the profits of manufacturers happens to clash with user safety, it is user safety that gets sacrificed at the altar of profit. This equation merely serves to underscore the observation that we have made repeatedly in this column: that human life is cheap in India, and will remain so until our rulers learn to have some respect for the people who put them in power. We would urge the Union Minister of Road Transport to give further thoughts to the unfortute about-turn on car safety and to make both airbags and crash tests on cars mandatory as contemplated earlier. He must not succumb to the pressures exerted by automobile manufacturers on the government to compromise automobile safety merely to protect profits.