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Road safety in India goes beyond NCAP

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 20, 2018

Rajiv Bajaj






Equally vulnerable are two-wheeler riders and autorickshaw occupants

t was in January 2014 when the Global New Car Assessment Programme made known that the Maruti Alto 800, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo, Volkswagen Polo and Tata Nano had been awarded zero-star protection ratings in crash tests.

In November of the same year, Global NCAP published similar results for Nissan’s Datsun GO and the Maruti Swift. VW since then decided to sell the Polo in India with two airbags as standard and subsequently received a four-star safety rating.

Earlier this week, Global NCAP was in the news again when it brought five more offenders under its scanner. They were the Renault Kwid, Hyundai Eon, Mahindra Scorpio and the Maruti duo of Celerio and Eeco. All were awarded zero ratings for their performances in crash tests.

However, what was different this time was that the Global NCAP leadership team was in India for a conference on road safety and released its findings then. Automakers already had a whiff of what was in store and were worried since none wanted to be associated with the tag of endangering customers’ lives. Quite predictably, there was a lot of consternation when the results were announced as even companies reacted with their points of view.

What was intriguing was the basket of cars chosen for Global NCAP’s crash tests. The Scorpio was first launched 15 years ago though it has gone through a lot of evolutions since then and still remains Mahindra & Mahindra’s flagship brand. The five-year-old Eon was touted as the company’s entry-level model for India and is doing reasonably well.

Launched in 2014, Maruti’s Celerio kicked off the ‘auto gear’ wave in the country while the Eeco is a brisk seller that reaches out to a diverse user base. The Kwid, of course, is the most recent entrant and a blockbuster in the compact car segment with over 1.3 lakh bookings.

Its good showing has been the best piece of news to Renault which also explains why Global NCAP’s crash verdict could not have come at a worse time.

Safety first

Will these results impact customer sentiment and, consequently, sales of these models? Going by the last round of crash tests, this is extremely unlikely. The Alto continues to be India’s top-selling car with over 20,000 units each month. Likewise, the i10 is one of the biggest growth engines for Hyundai. The Nano and GO were non-starters anyway while the Figo had lost its momentum after a brisk start.

Yet, is there cause for concern with Global NCAP’s findings? Of course, it is embarrassing for any manufacturer to be associated with a dismal report card on safety. It also brings forth the oft repeated argument if Indian lives are cheap compared to those abroad. When cars exported from India are fitted with airbags, is there any reason for customers here to be denied this option?

In their defence, automakers say that they abide by safety regulations in India which do not mandate such accessories. Equally, they point out to the fact that airbags are offered in some versions and it is not their fault if customers choose not to buy them. So, whose fault is it by the end of the day?

A straightforward reply is impossible simply because the Indian road ecosystem is so complex. You have bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, scooters and autorickshaws jostling for space with cars/SUVs, buses and trucks. Throw in stray cattle for good measure and what emerges is a catastrophic landscape where daily commuting becomes a nightmare. In addition, the pedestrian is constantly at risk with kerbs rapidly disappearing from cities.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that India heads the world list of road fatalities at 140,000 people each year (and growing). It would also be naïve to presume that only car occupants are the most vulnerable when two-wheelers and pedestrians are perhaps more so.

Rapid urbanisation will only aggravate the problem as pressure on public transport increases. In this background, the Centre is right in formulating new road safety laws that come into effect by end-2017.

However, the challenge is implementation and if the track record with helmets and seatbelts is any indication, the scenario looks bleak.

Like India, other emerging markets like Mexico and Brazil face similar challenges.

While Global NCAP’s crash results are timely wakeup calls, they are not going to solve the bigger problems of road safety management. In this backdrop, it is also not entirely fair to blame automakers or mock those who buy cars without airbags. These are people who have just graduated from two-wheelers and will quite rightly opt for an affordable car.

Rajiv Bajaj hits out at NCAP

By his own admission, he was away doing yoga in the Swiss Alps but that did not stop Rajiv Bajaj from taking a potshot at Global NCAP. It is perhaps well known by now that there is really no love lost between the two following the recent exchange of words after the quadricycle crash tests.

In a press release issued on Tuesday, the Managing Director of Bajaj Auto said it was clear to him that Global NCAP’s stand on safety was beyond his “limited” comprehension. “I hear NCAP implying that those who walk, cycle, ride, or use a 3-wheeler must not seek a safer alternative in the quadricycle; they must continue as they are until they can afford a high emission, low mileage, congestion causing car instead,” continued Bajaj.

In this backdrop, “it amuses me no end that on the one hand NCAP has apparent misgivings about quadricycles yet, simultaneously along with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways & the Institute of Road Traffic Education, invited Bajaj Auto to speak at the Indian Automobile Safety Conference in Delhi on Monday calling the Qute a global example and a vehicle of the future”.

On an otherwise grim day for carmakers, this statement from Rajiv Bajaj turned out to be a bit of a stress buster. As an auto sector official said, “He sure calls a spade a spade.”

Published on May 19, 2016

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