Do car makers in India really care about your safety?

Well, it’s true. India’s car market is not as evolved as say that of Europe or the United States. This means that cars with compromises are the ones that usually get built here. A compromise on engine performance by going small on the displacement is fine as the market here demands fuel efficiency. A compromise on size is also fine as India does not have wide freeways to squeeze in gargantuans. Compromise on safety? This is how the much bandied about Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Program (BNVSAP) could turn out to be if the country’s automakers and their “lobbying” body have their way.

A Suzuki Swift in a Euro NCAP Side Impact Test
A Suzuki Swift in a Euro NCAP Side Impact Test

Mr R.C. Bhargava, the Chairman of India’s largest automaker Maruti Suzuki has had this to say,

Whatever standards you fix, they should not be blindly copied from Europe, but judged in the context of Indian traffic requirements. 

Fair enough, but he follows his first statement with this peach,

It is a little premature to jump to the conclusion that airbags will solve the problem. Nobody has established any link between how many deaths have been caused because a car did not have airbags. 

Mr. Bhargava’s second statement follows the premise that 50 % of deaths in Europe are caused in cars, despite the automobiles there being better built and equipped with modern safety features. In India, this number stands at 16 %. Therefore, by the Maruti Suzuki Chairman’s astute logic, India does not need high safety standards.

A Datsun Go in the Global NCAP Crash Test
A Datsun Go in the Global NCAP Crash Test

And then, we have this. Mr. K.K. Gandhi, a Director at the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), a lobbying of the automotive industry here, makes this comment.

Higher speed crash tests will make the cars safer, but also costlier. At the same time, it could make the drivers more aggressive as they will think that their cars are safer.

Beat that for logic, and this coming from a lobbying body represents everything that’s wrong about the whole concept of a lobby, or cartel if you will. Whatever happened to dialogue, advocacy and debate?

Mr. Jnaneswar Sen of Honda seems a touch more guarded as he makes his observations on this critical issue,

We hope that the authorities take the Indian situation into consideration while framing policies.

A Ford Figo in the Global NCAP Crash Test
A Ford Figo in the Global NCAP Crash Test

Tata Motors’ spokesperson delivers a statement that explains the government’s position more than that of the company’s, which is understandable given how sticky this issue is proving to be for automakers here.

Today, a significant number of road casualties happen outside of the vehicle—two-wheeler and pedestrian-related accidents are a case in point. The ministry is looking at road accidents-related data from different segments to finalise the test protocols and criteria.

If the Indian government gives in to the car making lobby, the BNVSAP could be heavily watered down. The following changes could be effected:

  1. Frontal crash safety test speed could be reduced from 64 Kph to 56 Kph.
  2. Pedestrian safety could involve only the head impact test, and not the Head and Leg impact test considered in Europe.
  3. Child dummies may not be considered in side impact tests.
  4. ABS+EBD will become standard fitment while ESP will be left out.

While there is a contention that adding safety to budget cars will increase their selling prices and affect sales adversely, this is similar to the argument that many Indian car makers put forth in the late 90s, when tighter emissions norms were introduced in the country. The tighter emission norms required car makers here to introduce fuel injection, replacing carburetors. Back then, fear mongering that fuel injected cars would prove to be too costly and too advanced for the Indian market was a regular argument that leading automakers adopted, trying to stall changes. Of course, now every car sold in the country, from the least priced Nano to the Rolls Royce Ghost Series II, uses fuel injection as standard. And car sales have grown, not fallen.

Automaking, like all other enterprises, exists primarily to chase profits, while putting people on wheels. Pun, not intended. When manufacturers are given a free rein of what the Indian car buyer will or will not get in terms of build and safety features, the former’s profit motive will dictate decision making. Naturally, a conflict of interest is bound to arise. This is the reason why every country has independent regulators that keep consumer/public good as their core focus area. Why should the Indian government be any different while framing crash safety norms for cars sold here? 

Via Outlook