400 Deaths Per Day: Is India Seeking Automotive Safety in the Wrong Places?
Every year, nearly 40,000 people lose their lives on American roadways. Tragic as that may be, it’s small potatoes when you consider India hovers around 150,000 annual fatalities. While you could attribute the difference to the 1.32 billion people living in the country, the truth is that car ownership in India is far less common than in the United States.
Here, there are about 255 million functioning vehicles, leaving the majority of the population with access to some form of four-wheeled transportation. However, in India, the number is closer to 55.7 million — which only gives 42 people out of every 1,000 access to an automobile.
Confronted with a situation that can only be described as catastrophic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to impose harsher penalties for traffic violations and requiring automakers to add safety features to cars sold within the region. While that’s a fine start, it doesn’t address the core issue: a nationwide lack of discipline behind the wheel.
Modi’s proposal, which passed the lower house of parliament and is expected to go through the upper house in 2018, also creates problems where there were none before. India is a country where the vast majority of residents purchase small economy cars that lack safety features that are now mandatory in other parts of the world. That isn’t because Indian consumers love saving money; most simply cannot afford something safer. This also contributes to an elevated number of cheap two- and three-wheeled transports, which assuredly do not help in culling the astronomical number of daily fatalities and will be unaffected by the new law.
According to Bloomberg, bargain models from companies like Tata Motors Ltd., Maruti Suzuki India Ltd., Renault SA, and Hyundai Motor Co. are immensely popular specifically because they are priced below 400,000 rupees (or $6,300). Mandating a bevy of safety features is expected to raise manufacturing costs by around 7 or 8 percent — and you’d better believe it will be passed on to the customer.
However, even a small economy vehicle equipped with airbags and ABS isn’t going to hold up in a collision against a much larger vehicle. The real issue is that India has some of the worst adherence to traffic laws of any country in the world, as well as a laughable driver’s education and testing program. Modi’s solution is tantamount to giving one’s child a helmet, telling them to go play in the street, and saying they will be spanked if they get hit.
Let’s start with what it’s like to drive in India. The infrastructure is a mess. Road conditions are irregular and often on the poor side of things. While crosswalks exist, pedestrians do not always adhere to them and frequently sprint across major highways or use congested roads as a sidewalk. Traffic mitigation is nonexistent — vehicles will endlessly jockey for position in crowded cities and seeing drivers bumping each other is extremely common.
Finally, nobody adheres to the rules of the road. Lane markings are irrelevant, stoplights are negotiable, police can be easily bribed, and cars will stop in the middle of the street. With the exception of which side of the road you’re supposed to be on, it’s a legitimate free-for-all.
The reason for this is India’s laughable requirements for acquiring a license. The actual test involves little more than proving you can start the vehicle and find the gas pedal, and most “driving schools” primarily exist so you don’t have to go through the headache of going through the government. That’s not to suggest the country’s drivers have no skill, but they are required to use it entirely on navigating a borderline-lawless nightmare. Remember that Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads episode where a Canadian lost his mind because of how dangerously aggressive motorists were in India? That’s the norm there.
Things are slowly changing, however. Younger drivers have assets their parents didn’t. Advocacy groups promoting safe driving are starting to develop online curriculums and apps that actually bother to teach people the rules. Still, they aren’t mandatory, and most state-based safety initiatives haven’t seen much support. Toyota also launched 50 dealer-based driving schools within the country this year. While it’s a great way to get potential customers in the door, the program was said to focus on the need to promote disciplined driving.
Meanwhile, the PM wants safer cars placed on the road as soon as possible. Ashwin Patil, an analyst with brokerage LKP Shares and Securities Ltd., told Bloomberg the new act would negatively impact the short earnings of automakers and could be a killing blow for the ultra-low-priced cars in India, as sticker prices could go up by as much as 100,000 rupees (about one-fifth of the car’s total price). The bill is expected to require additional safety features on all cars manufactured after July 1st.
Not all companies will be equally affected. Both Toyota and Volkswagen haven’t made a distinction between their Indian and export versions, and have models that already exceeded Indian safety standards. That leaves other manufacturers playing catch-up — many of which produce cars that wouldn’t earn a single star if measured against European crash test standards.
Rajan Wadhera, president on the automotive side of India’s Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd., said his company offers the same safety features on both domestic and export models. But he also stated that affordability and popularity have the greatest influence on car purchases. “Finally, it should be noted that it’s the customer’s choice that drives volumes than anything else,” Wadhera explained.
India is filled with a billion people living on the tightest of budgets, and having cars that are two decades behind the rest of the world in terms of safety isn’t its biggest problem. Should the safety standards be changed? Yes, absolutely. However, that isn’t going to change the systemic problem that’s ultimately causing 400 deaths per day. Something has to be done about the country’s unsafe driving habits, abysmal infrastructure, and lackluster policing.
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