India wasn't applying widespread crash testing like foreign countries do, so manufacturers didn't see the need for an investment focus on safety.
Customers rarely walked into showrooms asking for the safest car. They wanted the cheapest or the most fuel-efficient or the best-looking car.
A decade ago, most cars with a high level of localisation of Indian parts fell short of global safety standards.
Their bodies didn’t have sophisticated crumple zones to direct impact away from passengers, the number of airbags they had were minimal or non-existent, and dynamic safety technologies were restricted to premium models.
There was a reason for that.
India wasn’t applying widespread crash testing like foreign countries do, so manufacturers didn’t see the need for an investment focus on safety.
Also, customers rarely walked into showrooms asking for the safest car.
They wanted the cheapest or the most fuel-efficient or the best-looking car.
Yet safety as a feature ought to be paramount because Indian roads are amongst the most unsafe in the world.
According to data from the ministry of road transportation and highways, road accidents kill 17 people every hour.
The problem, experts say, is that car-makers are only making vehicles that get by with the bare minimum in certain countries.
“It is troubling that during the UN Road Safety Week, we yet again encounter a zero-star car in crash testing in India.
"Renault produces the Duster in a number of markets and yet it seems content to provide a version for India that falls so short of safety,” said David Ward, secretary general of the Global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), referring to the results from last year.
Around 2013-2014, independent crash tests by NCAP on Maruti-Suzuki’s top volume seller, the Swift hatchback, and Nissan’s Datsun Go showed a high risk of life-threatening injuries with both cars receiving zero-star safety rating for their adult occupant protection.
For cars like the Maruti Alto and the Tata Nano it was even worse as it showed that even with airbags, survival would be a challenge.
The poor results pushed awareness - but only just.
In 2013-14, India implemented the UN Regulation 94 crash test standards, which check cars and how they deal with impact at around 56 kmph.
This is lower than the global NCAP system that measures impact at a higher speed of 64 kmph.
The auto industry’s argument was that cars in India aren’t driven at the same speeds as cars in Europe or the US.
In January 2015, Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari confirmed that India would apply UN equivalent crash test standards for front and side impact in two phases: For new models from October 2017 and for all cars from October 2019.
A Bharat New Car Assessment Programme is also being developed and will start testing once the necessary laboratory capacity is available.
Ward pointed out that though a few Indian cars score high on international safety norms, many still scrape by on the bare minimum required.
“That approach risks completely misunderstanding the reality of a very global industry where India has the potential to be a great exporter of cars if they are as safe as international automobiles,” Ward said, adding that Volvo, Toyota, Volkswagen are foremost worldwide in safety norms.
Tata and Mahindra have made big strides among Indian players, he added.
Some of the safety tech is not very expensive.
Take Electronic Stability Control (ESC), for example.
As a technology used in cars it operates via a gyro-sensor that detects vibrations from the steering wheel when the car is sliding or driving out of normal rhythm and connects to antilock braking systems (ABS) to correct car movement.
Ward said that ESC units, which are made by component makers such as Bosch, cost between $30 and $50 dollars, can also be fitted in commercial vehicles and prevent anywhere between 20 and 40 per cent of crashes.
“Its penetration in India, however, is less than 10 per cent of automobiles.”
Even so, top auto-makers are making an attempt to promote safety as a differentiator.
Hyundai’s officials, for example, said the ABS feature is standard across all Hyundai cars and the ESC feature is available in the Hyundai i20, Kona, Verna, Elantra, Venue, Creta and Tucson models.
The latest Mahindra Thar SUV also features both ESC and ABS, officials from M&M said.
Maruti Suzuki declined to respond to emails clarifying the levels of safety technology it has deployed across its models.
Why aren’t Indian cars as safe as foreign ones?
As most of India’s vehicles fall into a cost-sensitive market, keeping that under control is a major challenge for automakers, which often leads to low prioritisation of safety features, said Suraj Ghosh, principal analyst, powertrain and compliance forecasts at IHS Markit.
Gautam Sen, Paris-based automotive author, said much culpability also lies with consumers.
“The fact is that cars that have no air-bags and lower safety norms do find buyers in large numbers,” he said.
“Car companies today launch a number of cars in at least three variants, which means the top end has all the air-bags and safety equipment while the entry-level version will be extremely cheap.”
The latest safety regulations, which came into effect on July 2019, mandate ABS, driver side airbags, seat belt warning systems as standard safety features.
At the end of the day, is it only about a regulatory push and laws that mandate air-bags or does the consumer demand factor have a role to play as well?
“To make safety widespread, a top car-maker needs to push it as a USP as well as educate consumers through widespread campaigns,” he said.
Meanwhile, simply making cars safer won’t hurt.
Photograph: Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/Reuters