25 August 2015 11:55:12 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Putting a price on safety

Indian cars put up a poor show when it comes to global safety standards

Many people do not realise that India is a giant in the global automotive industry. The country ranks an impressive sixth in car production, behind Korea, Germany, Japan, the US and China. For every three cars that the US produces, India makes one car; not bad for a country which was once known for only two brands, the Premier Padmini and the Ambassador, just 35 years ago.

Today, Indian cars comprise all segments of a major automobile market — Mini, Compact, Hatchback, Sedan, Premium, Luxury and even Super Luxury cars. MPVs, Crossovers, SUVs and vans complete the ensemble, giving the average Indian customer lots of choices across multiple manufacturers.

But this is where the resemblance to other automotive markets ends.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), India records a whopping 207 deaths for every 10,000 vehicles on the road. The comparable figures are 6.9 for Germany, 7.3 for Japan and a relatively high 13.6 for the US.

Something is not right here.

Common sense says that for traffic accidents to occur, four factors are chiefly responsible: Poor infrastructure including substandard design of roads and bridges, low awareness of and lack of respect for traffic rules, lax enforcement and unsafe vehicles.

Don’t match up

Most cars sold in India fail miserably when it comes to safety, falling far short of competing models in other countries. Safety features are practically non-existent in the lower segment cars in the market, which, because of relatively lower cost, are the most popular models for the cost-conscious Indian consumer.

Ratan Tata is famously reported to have launched the Nano as a safer alternative to families on two-wheelers. While well-intentioned, truly safer, and brilliantly engineered to be so economical in price, the Nano as a car would not meet the minimum standards of most western nations.

Measuring up

In the US, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) dictate every aspect of automobile production, from design, construction and performance, to durability. These are divided into three categories: crash avoidance, crashworthiness, and post-crash survivability.

The best example of a crash avoidance safety feature is seatbelts. Seatbelt use is mandatory in the US (New Hampshire is the lone exception) and all cars must offer seatbelts. Child passenger restraint requirements vary based on age, weight and height. Often, this happens in three stages: infants use rear-facing infant seats; toddlers use forward-facing child safety seats; and older children use booster seats. Many laws require all children to ride in the rear seat whenever possible.

Most cars in India today come with seatbelts but many drivers are unaware of their value in saving lives. Drivers wear them grudgingly on sighting a police officer but quickly get out of them when the opportunity presents itself. Front-seat passengers ignore seatbelts altogether and, to make matters worse, carry children on their laps, feeling guilty to leave them belted in the rear. When the vehicle is moving, it is not uncommon to see a tantrum-throwing child exchanged between adults in the front and rear seats. Try doing this in Germany. If caught, your license will be suspended and you may even be arrested for reckless endangerment.

Designed to kill?

How are Indian cars designed to handle accidents? Not very well. Crashworthiness is an estimate of the occupant protection provided by a vehicle, namely the risk of the driver of a vehicle being killed or admitted to hospital when involved in a crash. A Mercedes’ or Volvo’s structure, for example, is engineered to withstand a collision, crumpling, bending and even collapsing if necessary, to keep its passengers safe.

Critics will say that to make cars affordable, manufacturers are forced to sacrifice safety features. But this assertion misses the point. State government sales taxes, VAT, licence fees and road taxes can amount to as much 44 per cent of the selling price of a car. For a car listing at Rs 6 lakh, these extras can cost the consumer nearly Rs 2.5 lakh, a small portion of which can buy many top-end safety features. Should the government then lower taxes in exchange for forcing manufacturers to include safety features?

Safety is key

In the US, even cars in lower-tiered segments come with impressive crash avoidance and crashworthiness features. Automobile manufacturers covet the safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). A car with low ratings has little chance of succeeding in the marketplace. A case in point: even the entry-level Hyundai Elantra offers, as standard, a long list of safety features including six airbags, side impact beams, side and curtain airbags, electronic stability control to manage braking, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, rear-view camera and a driver's blind spot mirror. All of this earned the brand a 4 out of 5 IIHS rating, enabling it to become one of America’s best-selling lower-priced cars.

Most people would be horrified if one were to make a public statement which said that a western life is somehow more valuable than that of an Indian. But our government, the various car-makers and the average driver not only make such a statement but deliver on it. Each and every day, with no end in sight.

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