India’s apathy towards ABS and airbags

After every occasion when a ghastly road accident cuts short a life or two and jolts us out of our stream of consciousness, one common topic that is always discussed within the automotive industry is India’s apathy towards safety features like ABS (anti lock brakes) and airbags.

One primary reason for this is ignorance. While airbags is self explanatory or if I can summarize it in lay man’s terms, two baloons fixed on the steering wheel and the passenger side dashboard that pops open whenever the car senses a fatal collision, ABS is something that is much more complex and difficult to fathom. But as surveys in the West prove, it is ABS that thwarts more damage.

What is ABS?

An abbreviation for Anti-Lock Braking System, it prevents wheels from locking when brakes are applied. In a non ABS car (most of the cars on road in India are like that), the wheels lock when braking which results in the car spinning out of control. ABS allows better control and the driver can still steer the car while braking hard.

Basically you can veer away from the vehicle in front in cases of last minute braking and avoid a collision. Since its inception in production cars in the 70s, the system has also evolved big time. We now know more advanced system of ABS as electronic brake distribution, which controls the application of brakes in the front and rear tyre, and advanced traction control mechanism.

The advantage that ABS has over airbags is that it kicks into effect even in low speeds typically in city driving conditions. An airbag in a car inflates only as a last resort when a collision is unavoidable and liable to cause grievous injury. So while airbags save lives, ABS limits or nullifies potential damage to vehicles day in day out.

Why India is apathetic?

The cost is the biggest impediment. Mini cars in India, the ones that sell the most like Maruti Alto, WagonR, Santro etc, do not offer ABS or airbag even as an option. The price differential between a car with ABS with a bare bones version can be as high as Rs 30,000. Add airbags to the list and the cost can be as high as Rs 1.5 lakh. For want of demand, that makes it illogical for any manufacturer to fit in these features in cheap cars.

Ominously though, even on cars that offer these features like the Swift, i10, i20 or Figo, consumers prefer to not upgrade and pay a premium for it. We are used to driving feature-less unsophisticated vehicles and often tend to think we will never feel the need for it. Buyers rather value features like a 2 din music system, fog lamps, mud flaps or swanky alloy wheels over an airbag and ABS. And that is a dangerous way of thinking.

Over the years our roads have become better, our cars are faster and the number of vehicles on the road has also increased manifold. All these expose us to the possibility of more fatal accidents every year. And the rate at which accidents are happening is proof of that.

A lot can be done through legislation as well. Forcing all manufacturers to fit in these as standard features could hasten the evolution. And over a period of time, the market will easily assimilate the price increase.

Some manufacturers like Honda and Renault Nissan have taken the lead. The French Japanese car maker now fits in a driver side airbag as standard in its cars like Micra, Pulse, Scala and Sunny. Had the cars succeeded in the market it would have forced others to follow suit. Their relative failure instead shows how lightly we treat life saving features like these.

Next time, when you do buy your car spare a thought. Opting for an ABS or airbag instead of spending Rs 30,000 on good looking wheels or a music system may end up to be a wiser decision. It may end up saving your life as well.

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