I am increasingly being asked about safe cars in the country and the criteria by which to judge a car and then classify it safe or unsafe. One starts off this quest with the basic premise that all cars are unsafe.
Increasingly, though, a lot of thought and work has gone in to try and minimise the risk of fatalities and serious injuries in case of “normal and reasonable” accidents in which a large number of occurrences are logical sequences within the purview of reason. On some cars, this work has been more successful than on the others, which makes some cars safer than the others. This work takes the shape of body structure and crumple zones, provision of advanced seat belts and airbags.
However, there is another aspect of cars that can reduce the chances of your car’s safety being tested. These are classified under active safety and typically include anti-lock braking systems (ABS), traction control or its advanced versions. These active safety features include equipment, easy to spot and assign a value to, though these values might differ from person to person. ABS is not designed to lower braking distances but helps maintain steering control under severe braking and is extremely useful in emergency braking situations as well as when there is low grip as on wet roads or when there is gravel on the road. ABS is a must in Indian driving conditions, but advanced stability systems are not as important as in the developed world because the overall speeds are much lower. If there is a choice between ABS and airbags, then the active safety system wins because it can help prevent you from getting into a situation where the passive safety systems will be put into use.
Now, coming to the more difficult part—how safe are you once the active safety systems have failed? Let’s talk about small cars first. The Hyundai Getz has a four-star Euro NCAP rating (out of a maximum of five stars), as do the Suzuki Swift and the Skoda Fabia. So, is it safe to assume that we have the safest cars in India as well? The answer is a very disappointing no! Because the basic cars that are sold in European countries and the ones tested by their programmes are quite different from those sold in India, in terms of safety equipment. For example, both the Hyundai i10 and Suzuki Swift are sold with front, side and curtain airbags as standard—on all their variants and models in the UK. The cheapest car available in India with as many airbags is probably the top-ofthe-line Skoda Laura. So, perhaps, Euro NCAP is not the perfect indicator of how safe a car is in India. Moving on to the rear seat passengers—people who buy cars to be driven around in—which is the safest car for them? The cheapest cars that offer airbags for rear passengers start off at about Rs 20 lakh. If you think that a four-inch thick moulded foam seat in front of you suddenly adds to your invincibility, let me assure you that it does not and the most famous example to remind you of the risks is Princess Diana. A safe car for you starts off with the likes of a Volkswagen Passat or a Skoda Superb.
So, everything else being equal, ABS is an option to definitely go in for to make your life in a car safer. But remember, the safest cars will do little to save you if you do not follow the basics of being safe in a car—fastening your seat belt, whether in the front or the rear.
Yogendra Pratap is Editor, Auto Bild India