E-PAPER: Why India's top carmaker is resisting more air bags

In 2020, more than 130,000 people lost their lives in road accidents

In Summary
  • At least one out of 10 people killed on roads in the world is from India, according to the World Bank.
  • Most people prefer to buy smaller cars, but utility, sports and multi-utility vehicles are now powering the uptick in sales.
Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) await shipment/FILE
Sports utility vehicles (SUVs) await shipment/FILE

They inflate rapidly when a car crashes and have been saving the lives of drivers and passengers around the world for decades.

Airbags have been touted as the most significant automobile safety innovation since the seatbelt.

So why is India's biggest carmaker resisting a federal plan to make six airbags mandatory in all cars manufactured later this year?

At least one out of 10 people killed on roads in the world is from India, according to the World Bank.

But Maruti Suzuki, majority owned by Japan's Suzuki Motor Corp, says the move to install more airbags will push up costs and hurt the small car market, which it dominates.

"This will hurt… the smaller and poorer people, who cannot afford the more expensive cars," the firm's chairman, RC Bhargava, told Reuters.

Two airbags - for the driver and the front passenger - are already mandatory in Indian cars. According to one estimate, adding another four will raise prices by at least $230 (£192).

This is a country where only eight per cent of households own cars and an entry-level hatchback costs around $4,250.

"The damage will be significant at the lower end of the market where there is huge price sensitivity," Bhargava said.

India sold more than three million passenger cars last year, a 13 per cent increase over the previous year, according to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 44 vehicle and engine makers.

Most people prefer to buy smaller cars, but utility, sports and multi-utility vehicles are now powering the uptick in sales.

The world's fourth-largest car market employs more than 30 million people directly and indirectly and contributes to some six per cent of India's GDP.

That's where the good news ends. India accounts for 10 per cent of all crash-related deaths in the world despite owning just one per cent of vehicles sold globally, according to the World Bank.

In 2020, more than 130,000 people lost their lives in road accidents. Some 70 per cent of the victims were aged 18-45.

More than half of them were pedestrians, cyclists and bikers. India loses three per cent of its GDP to car crashes every year.

The country now wants to cut road deaths by half by 2025.

One way it wants to do this is by boosting automobile safety features. Apart from making six airbags mandatory, the government also plans to launch Bharat NCAP, a car safety watchdog that will introduce a safety rating system for cars - one to five stars based on crash test performances in adult and child passenger protection as well as safety technologies.

This will also spur a "mission to make India the number one automobile hub of the world", according to federal transport minister Nitin Gadkari.

To be sure, India is a price-sensitive market. Price tags for locally-made cars range from 340,000 rupees ($4,270; £3,540) to 3m rupees.

Yet, the demand for small cars is falling. Rising prices of raw materials and taxes are making them costlier, putting them out of reach for people who are looking to upgrade from the ubiquitous two-wheelers. Fuel prices have shot up.

For most Indians, incomes are stagnant because of the prolonged economic downturn. And those who can afford it are looking to upgrade to sedans and utility vehicles, further shrinking the small-car market. Maruti Suzuki reckons there has been a 25 per cent decline in the market for hatchbacks in the past four years.

So are Indian cars safe?

Studies by GlobalNCAP, a UK-based independent car safety watchdog, present a mixed picture.

When it began testing India-made cars in 2014, five of the country's most popular small cars - accounting for 20 per cent of the total sales - failed crash tests. (They included models made by Tata, Ford, Volkswagen and Hyundai.)

Since then, the watchdog has tested more than 50 models - those made by Tata and Mahindra were rated among the safest.

Tata Nexon, a five-seater SUV, was the first India-made car to grab a five-star safety rating for "adult occupant protection".

"There has been significant progress on vehicle safety design but as we see from our latest results, more has to be done to achieve the high safety standards that consumers in India rightly demand," says Alejandro Furas, secretary general of GlobalNCAP.

Furas says Indian carmakers have upped safety standards but "major global brands fall short on safety while comfortably exceeding these requirements in other global markets".

The implication is that cars are apparently stripped of safety features to make them cheaper for Indian markets.

But in general, Indian cars have "become very safe" over the last decade, says Dhruv Behl, managing editor of AutoX, a leading automobile magazine.

He believes that the costs of upgrading safety will come down as economies of scale kick in.

Yet, a car with the best safety features is as good as the driver, says Kushan Mitra, who writes on automobiles. "Indians don't drive well. We are also not very safety-conscious.

My son goes to a posh pre-school, and only 10 per cent of the children who are driven there are put in child seats," he says.

He's right. Children sit on co-passengers' laps, rear passengers don't wear seat belts, and people drive in the wrong lane and on the wrong side of gridlocked roads.

Speeding and drunk driving are common on the newly-built high-speed expressways.

Heavy vehicles are carelessly parked in highway car lanes. Ride-sharing cabs routinely disable rear seat belts. Many roads are badly designed. Enforcement of traffic rules is patchy.

When people shop for a vehicle, they typically enquire about leather seats, sunroofs and the car stereo, says Vinkesh Gulati, president of the Federation of Automobile Dealers Association. Many owners have little interest in safer cars.

"Safety is usually not the paramount expectation from a car. They may not cancel an order because of the car's safety features. But awareness is picking up slowly."

Archana Pant Tiwari is one such buyer. The 58-year-old homemaker will soon be shopping for an SUV and says she will insist on more airbags, an anti-lock braking system - which prevents skids through automated braking - and rear parking sensors. She wouldn't mind paying for more safety features, she says.

"I want my car to protect me."