Sustainable Future Conundrum: Part 2 – Automotive Safety

Demanding airbags in cars in India is like the senator from Texas demanding mandatory Kevlar school uniforms when gun control should have been the obvious choice.

By: | Updated: May 25, 2017 1:57 PM

In the second part of my ongoing series on solving Indian automotive market growth issues, I look at automotive safety and why we have one of the most unsafe roads in the world. Unsafe roads and fast(er) broadband are going to be the prime reasons why Indians would stay off the roads in the future, throttling future automotive growth. Automotive companies don’t want that to happen, do we?

Also, we are steadily moving towards the adaption of automotive safety norms for the Indian Passenger vehicle market. Why do I think it’s a sham and a scam? I discuss all this and more this week and next in this two part write-up.

Early warning — through most of this write-up and the next, I will behave like a salmon on heat trying to swim against the current of the convention.

Last week I started writing this piece about automotive safety in India. At the same time my newsfeed was populated with two inter-linked news stories. The first one was on GlobalNCAP testing the Renault Duster and finding essentially that it is made of tin-foil. The second one was of the very new Suzuki DZire meeting with a highway accident and how wrecked it looked. In both cases, the take-away was the same - Indian cars are more unsafe than the least paid character in an ensemble horror movie.

Now, let’s be clear, I like the GlobalNCAP guys. I think their heart is in the right place.

It’s just that the brains are scattered.

The dummy shattering crash tests miss the trees for the woods. While they do tell us that Indian cars are unsafe, they miss the real reason for road deaths in India.

Read about: Bold Move Towards Electric Vehicles – Ambitious or Unrealistic?


Road (Un)Safety in India

To sound credible in this mostly ludicrous write-up, I will start with some data analysis.

In 2015, about 150,000 people lost their lives on Indian roads. In comparison, the United Kingdom (you may substitute any developed country here) had statistics of 1732 deaths. That doesn’t look too good for our country.

Hold on, India has many more people than the UK. Make that many, many, many more. At last count, India had nearly 20 times more people than Brexit Islands. So perhaps that explains the many more deaths?

Unfortunately, that makes us look even worse. We lost 120 people per million to roadkills while the UK only lost 26 per million.

Now, I may dice & slice this data in a number of ways but India always comes across looking worse every time. Our country has a lower road density, a lower per capita car parc, a lower legal speed limit, a much lower average road speed, a lower average engine output and yet we end up killing many more on the roads. Heck, our per capita beer consumption — 2 litres per year against UK’s 68 litres per year — holds no water. We barely match the islands on whisky drinking, not counting adulterated narangi, and we are at the bottom of the global barrel in wine consumption. So drink & drive should be much lower in India.

Yet we kill so many more.


The culprit — as many self-professed road safety experts, many in the government, the GlobalNCAP guys and some in the automotive industry claim — are our cars. Most of them are made of cardboard, paper-mache and balsa and would shatter and splinter if they hit a teddy bear at 10mph.

The car manufacturers blame the customer. He wanted a car at the price of a used iPhone and the first thing we could remove was the Batmobile armour option.

The customer keeps dying.

The government realises that this is the deep-shit-beyond-comprehension territory. Worse, it's the kind of shit that doesn’t get votes and cannot be exploited in any way for popularity. Hindus & Muslims and Yadavs & Dalits all die nearly equally. The government — like any incompetent organisation — wants to keep everyone happy without doing anything substantial. It wants to be seen as taking action.

The Government Solution?

Enter Airbags!Theoretically, the government’s solution is the perfect fix in every sense. You crash the car and a fabric balloon inflates-and-deflates faster than Quicksilver can shag and saves you from the shockwave. Airbags make the car safer and would reduce the number of deaths in accidents.

Theoretically, the government’s solution is the perfect fix in every sense. You crash the car and a fabric balloon inflates-and-deflates faster than Quicksilver can shag and saves you from the shockwave. Airbags make the car safer and would reduce the number of deaths in accidents.

Also, by virtue of mandatory fitment and replacement after every crash, we sort of automatically add more than INR 20 billion per year of value to the automotive industry.

I did not bother calculating that.

This happens without selling a single extra car!

In the political & economic sense, Airbags make even more sense for the government. All the logical solutions that I would suggest in Part 2 of this write-up next week would easily cost a few billion dollars to the exchequer. Further, some of the suggested solutions will need logical thinking, managerial efforts and logistical solutions from the government, essentially virtues that an incompetent organisation shies away from. The solutions need long-lasting political commitment and hand holding beyond just signing the orders.

The Airbags? They only cost the car buyer and once the government signs the order, it can shove the safety issue under a rug. Eureka! its technology wiping your shit.

So Airbags work for everyone — the government, the automotive industry, GlobalNCAP and even the car buyer. Everyone, but for me.

My problem? Airbags only save the occupants.

Data Once Again
Quoting from random media reports, statistics from accident FIRs data indicates that 21% of road deaths are pedestrians. A further 49% are two-wheeler riders. That’s a whopping 70% and we haven’t even touched deaths in bus & truck mishaps. As an estimate, I would put airbags-saveable-deaths at about only 15% of the 150k number.

That’s still large and definitely should be saved but does it make sense to ignore the other 85% and keep the focus of automotive safety on airbags?
The Problem?
The problem is that the government’s solution is more like Karan Johar. When one actually needed an hour on the cross-trainer and serious diet-control, we ordered a body-shaper. It hides the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Worse it’s gift wrapping — it adds price without adding any value.

The cynical me also believes airbags make cars unsafe. The driver is likely to drive even more rashly because he is smug in the knowledge that an air balloon will save him in a crash. He is still not wearing a seat-belt if a cop is not plastered on the bonnet. Demanding airbags in cars in India is like the senator from Texas demanding mandatory Kevlar school uniforms when gun control should have been the obvious choice.

Okay, I made that up.

Real Culprit
When I start peeling the layers of the onion called road safety in India and try to get to the core of the issue, all I get is tears. The truth is quite profound — the developed world doesn’t just die less in car crashes, it crashes less, much less than what we in India do.

Look at the statistics again — a large percentage of the aforementioned 150k roadkills were not even in front of steering wheels. They were in front of bumpers, or behind handlebars, or while jaywalking.

So maybe road safety can be greatly improved just by improving the driving standards of Indian drivers.

Core of the Problem
Peel the layers further and it seems the quality of Indian primary education is to blame.

A few weeks back the Metropolitan Police visited my son’s school. Two officers walked the Year 4 group on public roads around the school and taught them how to cross roads on pedestrian crossings. They also explained the basic traffic light system as well. It seems that they are good teachers as I rarely see any kid on a push-scooter ever breaking traffic rules.

We in India did not benefit from such education.

Let me correct myself — in some parts I did get the education. I do faintly remember the look-left-look-right-look-left instructions that came in Year 1 (or was it Year 2 or 3?) for crossing the road at a zebra crossing. I also remember the traffic signals instructions, many a time incorrectly explained in sequence in the textbooks.

The problem for me, growing up in Gurgaon in the late 80s, was that there were no zebra crossings or traffic signals. It didn’t matter - there were no cars either. The problem is that times changed. We went from a 30k-a-year cars to a 3m-a-year cars industry while pedestrian crossings still stayed Alice in Wonderland.

Marked & painted pedestrian crossings are still as rare as an honest politician. No wonder that a large chunk of the aforementioned 150k roadkills were pedestrians. In most cases, they didn’t know when to cross and the erring drivers didn’t know when to stop.

Here, pedestrian crossings are just a generalisation. We simply lack any street signage confirming to international standards. A busy intersection in a developed country has a mind-boggling array of signages, all doing a critical job.

We have the advertisement of the local property agent, again doing a critical job.

Vienna Convention - Lost in Translation?
There is something called the Vienna Convention on Road Signage & Signals. This came into force in 1968 and — hold your breath — India was amongst the first countries to sign it. The convention standardises the signing system on roads so that you don’t feel like entering an alien planet should you cross borders. Being a co-signatory to the Vienna Convention is exactly the reason why Indians moving residence abroad are allowed to drive on their Indian driving licenses for up to one year. We end up behaving like jerks for one year before training & testing corrects us.

India signed and ratified the Vienna convention but has done little to implement it. Our road signages are pretty much absent, the highway distance markers follow no convention, and many in the state of UP are covered by posters of Mayawati. I estimate that more than 90% of all roads in our country do not have even proper lane markings. Anything beyond that is out of the question.

Highway Code or Lack Thereof
The Highway Code in the UK (substitute any developed country here) is a rulebook that tells pedestrians, cyclists and drivers how to behave on the road. There are dos and don’ts and about a 100 different signages that one needs to learn and remember to qualify to take the driving theory test. Post that you can step into a car with an instructor, learn how to drive ‘ properly’ and hopefully get a license in three years. The process is painful and super expensive.

I should know, I failed three times.

Still, a punctured ego is better than punctured lungs.

The point is that when every wannabe Hamilton is put through this rigorous system, three things are likely to happen. First, a third of all candidates would drop out forever owing to frustrating failures and depleting bank accounts. Another third do get licenses but also learn to appreciate the public transport system. They buy used cars and seldom drive. The remaining one-third actively end up on the roads.

It’s a beautiful system — increases government revenues keeps people from dying and reduces emissions by 66% automatically.

India has the same system but for gun licenses. America, please learn from us.

In the second part of this series, I will propose some rational solutions each of which will cost multi-billion dollars and a lot of effort. Obviously, everyone can ignore them.


Author: Deepesh Rathore is a Director at Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors (EMMAAA)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not represent those of The Indian Express Group or any employees.

Get the latest cars price and upcoming bikes price in India exclusively at Financial Express. Stay tuned for new cars and bikes reviews, follow us on twitter, Facebook and subscribe us on YouTube for latest auto news.