Safety takes the back-seat among car buyers in India

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Brand, fuel efficiency top reasons for choosing a model among buyers, with safety figuring at the bottom, despite higher number of road fatalities in India

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Mumbai: Over the last two years, car safety concerns have been rising, going by headlines. Going by numbers, not really.

Renault Kwid, one of India’s top-selling models, scored poorly in crash tests conducted by UK-based vehicle safety assessor Global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) on 19 September. Honda Mobilio’s base variant, too, scared zero on a scale of five for adult occupant protection.

But customers aren’t troubled.

Safety figures quite low (bottom quartile) among the customers’ reasons for choosing a model, according to the 2016 India Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) study, conducted by JD Power Asia Pacific. Buyers still list brand reputation, fuel efficiency and vehicle quality and reliability as top reasons. Safety as the main reason for purchase has grown from a mere 2% in 2014 to 4% in 2016.

“Customers presume all vehicles they buy are safe as they cannot easily discern the safety of one vehicle from another,” said Mohit Arora, executive director at JD Power Asia Pacific.

Prasanna Dhana, 29, bought a Renault Kwid on 15 September. Four days later, for the second time in six months, the Kwid, even with a driver’s side airbag, scored a single star for adult occupancy protection in crash testing by UK-based vehicle safety assessor Global New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP).

Did it bother him? Dhana said low safety rating was “not a deal breaker” for him. “To be honest, expecting safety in cars below Rs5 lakh is not possible in our auto industry. Every car is made to a cost, keeping weight low so as to achieve fuel efficiency,” he added.

Kwid, which Renault launched in India in September 2015, sells about 9,500 units every month, making it one of the highest selling models in India.

Dhana said the dynamics of a crash can matter more than safety ratings. “It is pure luck to survive a crash. I also ride motorcycles which are 100 times more prone to danger. It boils down to our skill and judgement, in my opinion,” he said. However, he says “it’s high time all our cars get tested.”

India has one of the highest numbers of road fatalities.

Road accidents killed an average of 216 people in the 15-34 age group every day in 2015, accounting for 54.1% of all deaths on the road.

Three of four accidents occurred because of the driver’s fault, according to road accident data released by the ministry of road transport and highways on 10 June.

New occupant protection regulations under the Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) take effect from October 2017, assigning star ratings based on the safety performance. Car makers are gearing up to meet stricter safety norms and have started offering airbags and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) as standard in some of the variants, pointing to the greater demand for such models.

Pravin Shah, president and chief executive, automotive division at Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, says while it is difficult to assess the impact of safety ratings on buying behaviour, Mahindra has seen an uptrend in consumer awareness on safety features.

Sales contribution of the KUV100s with airbag variant is 62% of the overall KUV100 sales, while 87% of all TUV300s sold are with airbag variants. ABS is a standard safety feature in all variants of the XUV500, KUV100 and the TUV300 (except for T4), he said.

“We had adopted a safety policy as part of our product development process. Hence, we are ahead of the time and already meeting regulatory norms which will become mandatory in 2019 for existing products,” he said. 

Parijat Chakraborty, executive director, TNS India, says one cannot draw comfort from the growing demand for top-end or mid-range variants featuring airbags and ABS because “as a community, we have more confidence on the idol on the dashboard or sacred ribbon strapped on the steering wheel. Somebody has to step in and shake us hard to get out of our fool’s dream,” said Chakraborty.

The fascination for the top end variants, according to him, is more for the fancy and comfort features. “Exception could be only for a handful of buyers,” he said, adding for most people, the alloy wheel or a fancy music system are the motivators to go for the top-end variant, not the airbag or ABS, he said.

A few car makers are taking some initiatives, but it is too little and too late. Few brands have made the airbag standard now. Others are yet to follow. Safety should not be “optional,” he pointed.