Across India, 146,377 persons were reported killed in road accidents in 2017. While this number sounds large enough, this represented a drop of three per cent over fatalities in 2016. If the modest dip tempts some stakeholders to harbour notions of complacency, then they should give up any such thought, because dark clouds are hovering over the road-safety scenario, threatening to derail India’s efforts to curb annual road fatalities.
Before elaborating on the threat, a macro perspective on road-safety issues appears to be in order. During the past decade, India’s robust economic growth, emerging cities, rising highway connectivity and increasing incomes, among other factors, have made improvements in personal transport imperative, especially as public transport continues to lag in meeting the burgeoning demand.
As disposable incomes increase, procurement preferences become more judicious, favouring faster and better automobiles and pushing for greater safety in vehicles. Despite this, customers’ buying sprees, lack of tighter controls on training norms, uncontrolled driver licensing and lax road safety practices among Indian drivers result in around 150,000 fatalities and a higher number of injured persons on the country’s roads.
Most deaths and injuries can be avoided if precautionary measures are adopted by drivers and implemented strictly by regulatory authorities. Indeed, the authorities have introduced a slew of regulations to improve road safety. Fitment of ABS (anti-lock braking system) have become mandatory in all new two-wheelers above 125 cc from April 1, 2018. Further, the government has mandated fitment of airbags in all M1 cars sold in India from 2019 onwards.
The government has also created new crash safety standards for frontal crashes (AIS 98), side crashes (AIS 99) and pedestrian protection (AIS 100), thereby updating the old rules in a single move, to keep abreast of the best European car crash regulations. The government is also facilitating the creation of a new Bharat Road Safety Assessment Programme, along the lines of the Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme), to independently assess and issue star ratings for vehicles sold in the country, so that customers can make informed choices to buy vehicles with better safety records.
From the above, it is clear that all these efforts are aimed at promoting safer automobiles with a pragmatic and proactive approach, in order to lower fatalities on Indian roads. In the clearly-aligned roadmap for improved road safety, a proposal has been floated surreptitiously in the guise of last-mile connectivity, creating a new category of vehicles — quadric-cycles. These are supposedly small-car lookalikes, but with almost no safety standards, or very low safety standards to protect their occupants. Proponents of this new category speak about keeping the cost low by not adhering to safety standards. Therefore, the moot point is whether the government will bypass safety norms to boost cheap last-mile connectivity.
Euro NCAP had issued a damning assessment of four heavy quadric-cycles, pointing out that their safety equipment is sparse even today. Crash test results indicated that fundamental problems persist in this segment. Given the major safety shortcomings, Euro NCAP requested more stringent norms by regulators and a greater sense of responsibility from quadric-cycle manufacturers to augment product safety. However, Euro NCAP has expressed disappointment that quadric-cycles still remain without basic safety features common to small cars. Since regulators and legislators have not been challenging these vehicles, consumers are gaining the mistaken impression that these vehicles are fit to drive.
While quadric-cycles are not subject to passenger car legislation, they are similar to small cars and, as a corollary, will compete for sales. Yet, their performance in Euro NCAP tests is way below that of similar-sized passenger cars. An environmental agenda cannot be cited for allowing unsafe vehicles with significant sales potential in markets across the globe. Incidentally, Euro NCAP tested quadric-cycles with lower speed vis-à-vis M1 cars. They kept failing miserably and recorded consistent “0” stars in the rating system, and were thereby declared unfit for use in any place whatsoever. Moreover, effective regulation is required in the UN World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations.
One fervently hopes that the automobile industry and the government will stay the course to create safe roads and safer cars in India. That is the only way to control annual road fatalities.
The writer is Partner, Khaitan & Co