The results of some of the popular Indian cars subjected to the Global NCAP tests have confirmed what we suspected all along – that Indian cars have appalling crash safety standards.  

With no government-approved crash testing facility in India (a plan to build one has been delayed for years) there can be no proper crash safety regulations. Therefore, the crashworthiness of cars in India was always unknown. Until now. 

NCAP’s first independent crash tests of some the best-selling cars in India have laid bare how unsafe these home-grown models are, complete with zero-star ratings. According to Max Mosley, chairman of Global NCAP, the safety standards of these cars are 20 years behind the five star standards of Europe and North America. A damning condemnation, no doubt, but should we be surprised? Not if you’ve been to India, where the concept of road safety is non-existent.

The statistics bear this fact out. With over 160,000 road deaths every year, India has the dubious distinction of having the worst road safety record in the world. Riding four (or even five) up on a motorbike without helmets is a way of life, and everyone moves around with a karmic belief of ‘it won’t happen to me’.

It’s not just the roads, either. People die falling out of trains and crossing train tracks, too, because health and safety is usually tossed out of the window. That’s sadly the state of mind of most people in India. 

For the punter, too, safety isn’t a priority. Price, fuel economy and cost of ownership take precedence over ABS, airbags and crumple zones. The good news is that car buyers of late are increasingly aware of the latest safety features, but the bad news is that they still don’t want to pay extra for them. Not even airbags, which NCAP tests show are the biggest life-saver. 

The fundamental problem here is the absence of contemporary safety regulations in India to force manufacturers to raise their safety standards.

The NCAP tests also show that home-grown cars such as the Tata Nano and Suzuki-Maruti Alto bodies have weak body structures that crush badly on impact. While it’s easy to get moralistic about these zero-star cars, the reality is that safety is directly proportional to costs. Are customers willing or able to pay for anything safer? The fact that the Suzuki-Maruti Alto is India’s largest selling car by far suggests otherwise.

The Tata Nano wouldn’t have been the world’s cheapest car if it was engineered with a four-star rating. From Tata Motors’ point view the Nano is still a lot safer than a family of four on a bike, the car’s intended customer. 

But, regulations or not, shouldn’t safety be the manufacturer’s responsibility too? Volkswagen certainly seems to think so. The dual-airbag-equipped Polo is the hero of the day with its four-star rating. The German manufacturer has declared that after the NCAP results the Indian Polo won’t be sold without airbags. The Polo isn’t a car that’s stripped of safety features to make it more affordable and VW’s uncompromising approach to safety must be applauded. 

Hopefully, other car makers will be forced to take the same no-compromise approach to safety as more and more Indian cars are crash tested by NCAP and their results made public. NCAP could also be the turning point in the car buyers mind – from apathy to awareness of what a safe car should be.