How to make our roads safer


How to make our roads safer

An oft quoted claim by the self-appointed pro-growth campaigners for the Indian infrastructure story is that “even in the West, the cars came first and the roads came later”.

A somewhat similar, skewed perception exists about automotive technology and the current state of safety of passengers and pedestrians on Indian roads. The vague claim is that most of the safety technology that works in the West will not be effective in Indian driving conditions, and that they will be expensive add-ons for car owners.

While policy-makers and the administration cast a callous eye and we as consumers wring our hands in despair for want of basic safety measures, mature markets are moving on to mandating new safety technology that we in India might take decades to even consider.

For example, cars must now have pedestrian safety tech in their bonnets to ensure that head injuries are mitigated in the event of a collision with a pedestrian.

There are Governments considering making it mandatory for electric cars to feature speakers through which engine noise must be emitted so that blind pedestrians may be warned of their approach.

Driver attention assistance and in-built breathe-analysers in cars may become mandatory in some countries. India now has the dubious distinction of being the country with the most fatalities from road accidents.

Every year more than 1.5 lakh people die on Indian roads and over 54 per cent of them are breadwinners for their families.

China with more than ten times the vehicular population has less than half that many fatalities. That is a staggering statistic if you consider the average population density of India (Census 2011) — it is the equivalent of every one within an area of 400 square kilometres getting wiped out every year!

When it comes to safety, we cannot afford to wade through every stage of the learning curve. Rather, wee should learn from the mistakes made by countries which have already seen rapid ‘motorisation’. The answers are there for those who seek them. What are the stumbling blocks and what is the perspective from the viewpoint of every stakeholder?

The consumer

Newer safety tech has rarely been wholeheartedly embraced by car buyers anywhere. Seat belts are proven to improve the chances of occupant survival by more than 35 per cent in the event of a collision. But, when they were introduced, drivers in every market had resisted wearing them.

The same has been the case with other safety technology. This is the reason why active safety measures that don’t need driver involvement or compliance are often better than passive safety measures.

Self compliance is also not a matter of how much people value their own lives. Yes, a more educated population will tend to understand and comply in greater numbers. But, moral suasion is rarely, if ever, an alternative to strict enforcement of the law. On average, consumers will always be callous about safety, unless they are penalised for non-compliance.

The manufacturer

The recent Global NCAP (new car assessment programme) crash safety test in which every chosen Indian small car failed was an eye opener. Most, if not all, safety technology has come into road cars from racing cars, and manufacturers have been at the forefront of developing and integrating new safety tech into vehicles.

But often manufacturers of cars in the cost-sensitive lower price categories are notoriously reluctant to go beyond the legally prescribed safety requirements.

Arguably, safety tech are the most expensive parts in any given car. From the manufacturer’s perspective, except in really high-end cars, safety is never a selling point,

The CEO of a leading automobile company says making some of the safety features needed to pass the Global NCAP crash test as part of standard fitment (such as airbags, antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution etc.) will increase the cost of a small car by 20 per cent or more.

With so much reluctance on the part of the car buyer to pay more for safety tech, which is perceived to be largely ineffective in the Indian context, car makers are loathe to offering anything more than is mandated.

Of course, every manufacturer will also point out that the fatalities are more among pedestrians, two-wheelers and bi-cycle riders and other road users, than occupants of their cars. The chorus then is about the lack of infrastructure and poor policing.

The executors

Enforcement of the law is often the weakest link in the chain that could eventually save lives on the roads. Though India has only about 41 cars per thousand people (lower than many of our neighbouring countries – year 2011), monitoring and policing is more lax compared to countries with much higher vehicle density and much larger road networks.

We have a national ‘standard’ law stipulating seat belt use, helmet use and even speed limits. Yet, road fatalities have been climbing up alarmingly over the past decade due to poor monitoring and enforcement.

The corruption in the system apart, the problem also lies in the lack of deterrence in the form of penalties. A good system to follow could have been an annual increase in fines based on the percentage increase in vehicle sales.

The legislators

Much change has been brought about, thanks to the intervention of the Judiciary. The move to a multi-point fuel injection from carburetion for cars as part of the Bharat Stage III emission norms cleared up not just Delhi’s smog but also had a national impact. The judiciary has the ability to enforce change amongst all the stakeholders.

Here are some changes to the law that could help reduce the carnage on the roads:

Make local authorities and state governments responsible for monitoring and enforcement by making compensation mandatory for accident victims.

A national law that mandates the need for prior warnings and road signs before the police and local authorities can issue a ticket will indirectly lead to better infrastructure and monitoring.

Additional safety features in cars must be mandated. Airbags may save lives of the car occupants alone, but features like anti-lock brakes can save the lives of pedestrians too.

Also, when the law mandates it, buyers will not be left with the choice of buying a car with lower safety specs and car makers will also be faced with a level playing field.

Make speed governors mandatory for all public transport vehicles all over the country.

Date of Article: 
Thursday, May 8, 2014
The Hindu Business Line