Sunday, July 15, 2007

Safety Last in Motown!

Its sad, but “safety last” seems to be the attitude of all players in the Indian automotive industry – be it manufacturers, consumers, Govt., transport companies – everyone. Seems too harsh, doesn’t it? Lets analyze why this conclusion was reached in the first place.

Automobile Manufacturers:

Road conditions in the country have improved tremendously in the past few years, more so the inter-city highway infrastructure. This has resulted in increasingly large number of people preferring their own cars for long distance transport. This improvement has also bred high-speed driving patterns. Obviously, this calls for higher safety expectations from the cars. But, have these expectations been met? Not really.

The bare minimum safety features one can expect when one thinks of high speed highway driving are – airbags and ABS. And what are the cars offering these features? Since small cars form the overwhelming majority of all cars sold in India, we’l take a look at small cars first.

  • Chevrolet Spark offers ABS as an option; on the top-end variant only. Airbags are not offered, even as an option.
  • Suzuki Zen Estilo offers ABS and driver-side airbag only as an option; on top-end variant only.
  • Fiat Palio Stile doesn’t offer either ABS or airbags, even as an option! (Either that, or their website design is so poor that I wasn’t able to locate these features).
  • Maruti WagonR offers ABS and airbag as option, on top-end variant only.

You’d notice that the real volume-sellers – Maruti 800, Hyundai Santro, Maruti Alto, Tata Indica do not even feature in this list. Reason- these cars offer neither airbags, nor ABS; even as option! I wonder whether these cars would even be road-legal in many of the developed countries. And I shudder to think about the upcoming Tata’s OLRC (One Lakh Rupees car), or similar ultra low-price cars being developed by other manufacturers (Kinetic??)

Now lets step up the ladder – and analyze the “premium hatch” segment.

  • Chevrolet U-VA offers ABS only on top-end variant. I could not find any reference to airbags on their site.
  • Maruti Swift offers dual front airbags and ABS as standard on top-end Zxi variant; and ABS as option on the middle Vxi variant.
  • Hyundai Getz has ABS on the to-end variant.

The above list is indicative. The point I’m trying to make is that the automobile manufacturers are trying to play a game here – if safety is what you want, go out and buy our top-end variants. What if I want a “basic” car, but with safety features? After all, since I don’t smoke, what use is a cigarette lighter and ash tray for me? What if I don’t care about body-colored door-handles and leather-wrapped gear-knob? Answer is – there is no such “basic-but-safe” car out there in the market.

And oh! If you thought that only small cars are the target of this safety-discrimination, think again. The same pattern of offering essential safety features on top-end variants is carried over all the way to the Chevy Aveos and Maruti SX4’s and Ford Fiesta’s etc.

I think it is high time manufacturers started offering ABS and Airbags as option across all variants. This is all the more relevant as the roads improve by the day, speeds increase, and more and more people start traveling by road.

General Public:

Its not only manufacturers who disregard safety. We "aam janta" care hardly 2 cents about it. How often have you seen well-educated people speaking on the mobile phone while driving a 2-wheeler? Its almost arrogance personified! “I don’t care about safety and rules. I have a cell phone and I shall use it while driving” kind of attitude only magnifies the safety problem on our roads.

Coming to the topic of rash driving – of course it is “subjective”. Still, just look around when you are driving. Chances are you’l see not only the “brat” cabbies driving as if there's no tomorrow; but the well-dressed, educated professional as well.

Transport companies:

People who regularly travel by the long-distance luxury bus services would identify with this. We have all kinds of luxury buses flooding the market. Volvos, sleeper coaches, semi-sleepers and what not. How many of these have proper safety features?

To quote an example, I regularly undertake overnight journeys by VRL, a private bus service provider in Karnataka. These buses are popular for their comfort. However, I have noticed time and again, that even though seat-belts exist, the seats are laid out in such a way that it is not possible to engage the seat-belts! One can imagine the effect of even sudden braking when one is asleep. This problem is even more pronounced in case of sleeper coaches. The upper berth in the sleeper coach buses are an example of how things should not be.

In spite of being so unsafe, these buses are immensely popular with the passengers. This shows how much the general public cares about safety! Or is it the case that transport companies dont give a damn about the passengers' concerns? Whatever be the case, it needs to be set right.


If the manufacturers are not forthcoming in offering safety features on basic cars, then the Government should mandate it. Of course, the ideal case would be that it should be made compulsory for ALL cars to feature ABS and airbags. However, this is not a practical solution. But, surely, the government can make it compulsory for all manufacturers to offer these safety features at least as an option on all variants?

The same goes for buses as well. The government should regulate safety features on all long distance buses.

Regarding rash driving and using cell phones while driving; well there are a whole bunch of laws regarding these. Only if all laws as they are on paper, were implemented!


Its still not too late. Either the manufacturers, transport companies and general public should act voluntarily, or the government should take matters in its hands. It only takes resolve on part of the authorities to brush aside resentment from lobbies.

Its delightful news that consumerism is becoming a way of life in India. Lets also inject an element of responsibility into the whole business! Looking forward to an India where safety gets its due credit. JAI BHARAT.