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Why Indians are forced to buy unsafe cars

February 06, 2014 11:04 IST

Why Indians are forced to buy unsafe cars

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Dinesh Mohan

Five small cars in the Indian market failed in the first-ever independent crash tests.

The first-ever independent crash tests of five brands of small cars from India have shown a high-risk of life threatening injuries in road crashes. 

Global NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) released the results at a conference in Delhi last Friday.

The cars tested were Maruti-Suzuki Alto 800, the Tata Nano, Ford Figo, Hyundai i10 and Volkswagen Polo.

For the Suzuki-Maruti Alto 800, the Tata Nano and the Hyundai i10, the vehicle structures proved inadequate and collapsed to varying degrees, resulting in high risks of life-threatening injuries to the occupants. 

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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The structures of these vehicles are not strong enough and would have been ineffective in reducing the risk of serious injury even if they were fitted with airbags.

On the other hand, the Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo had structures that remained stable - and, therefore, with airbags fitted, protection for the driver and front passenger would be much improved.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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Coinciding with the Global NCAP (or GNCAP) tests, Volkswagen has decided to withdraw the non-airbag version of the Polo from sale in India.

In their current form, none of these cars can be marketed in most countries of Western Europe, the US, Japan, and Australia.

GNCAP is an independent charity registered in the UK and receives support from the FIA Foundation, International Consumer Testing and Research, the Road Safety Fund and the World Bank Global Road Safety Facility (globalncap.org).

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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There are currently nine NCAP programmes active across the world and they rate cars for safety on a scale of zero to five stars. Except for the Volkswagen Polo, all the other Indian cars received a rating of zero stars.

What these results mean is that in a frontal crash at over 50 km/h the occupants of these cars have a high probability of being injured critically. 

These results inform us in a graphic manner that very unsafe cars are being marketed in India with the knowledge of the manufacturers and government officials.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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Many of us have known this for years, and have been urging the Indian government to make it mandatory for all Indian cars to follow internationally accepted norms for frontal and side impacts.

Similar crash tests have been mandatory in the US, Europe and Japan for over 25 years, and so all the manufacturers know how to make cars that can pass these tests.

But they choose not to do so unless forced by governments to follow mandatory regulations.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP
Tags: Europe , Japan , US

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Therefore, I am not surprised at all that Indian cars failed the GNCAP tests. Similar results have also been reported from Brazil, Malaysia and China, where cars are sold in the absence of appropriate safety regulations.

The fact that vehicle manufacturers generally do not provide safety features unless forced to is proven by the responses of the car companies involved.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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A spokesperson from Tata Motors is reported to have said, "All our vehicles, including the Tata Nano, meet all Indian safety regulations", and that from Hyundai India, "Hyundai Motor India affirms that Hyundai vehicles are designed and built to meet all the prescribed safety standards set by Indian regulatory authorities."

What they did not say is that they know that their Indian cars are not safe enough and they make safer cars for other markets.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP

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Therefore, the responsibility lies with the Indian government for delaying the announcement of strict safety norms for cars sold in India. This delay over the years has already resulted in unnecessary deaths and disablement of thousands of Indian citizens.

One of the reasons given by government officials and manufacturers is that safety features will make the car more expensive. This is a disingenuous argument. 

You don't sell a refrigerator that leaks poisonous gas or electrocutes people because it can be made cheaper. In any case, safety features such as the airbag, anti-lock brakes, and rear windshield wipers are not particularly expensive anymore.

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Photographs: Courtesy, Global NCAP
Tags: Indian , India

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My friends in the industry tell me that they can be provided for less than Rs 15,000 or so. However, none of the Indian manufacturers give us this choice.

The Transportation Research & Injury Prevention Programme (TRIPP) did a survey of sale prices of all car models on the road in India in 2013 and found that a car buyer has to spend about Rs 100,000 or more extra to buy the same model vehicle with the safety options. 

The safety options come bundled with extra chrome, leather, expensive stereos and other trim. The customer is being forced to buy unsafe cars since safety options are not available for their actual price.

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In this survey, we also reviewed all the manufacturers' print and TV advertisements. To our surprise, we found that while all manufacturers were advertising speed, acceleration and trim, none focused on safety features.

It is clear that the responsibility for ensuring sales of safer vehicles lies entirely with the government, and they have failed in their task. 

The ministry of road transport and highways has even failed to establish a statutory independent agency for road safety that can promulgate safety regulations in a fair, transparent and professional manner.

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The Sundar Committee on Road Safety and Traffic Management submitted a report to the ministry in February 2007 suggesting the setting up of such an agency through an Act of Parliament called the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board.

The ministry took over three years to send the proposal to Parliament. The Standing Committee of the Parliament returned the Bill to the Ministry in 2010 for reconsideration and it still lies there.

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It has taken GNCAP to come to India from London to expose the unsafe ride we undertake every day.

We hope that the ministry of road transport and highways will take its responsibility more seriously now, establish the Road Safety Board without delay, and ensure that we get safer cars to ride in from 2015 onward.

The writer is Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus, Transportation Research & Injury Prevention Programme.

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